why I like unhappy books

I've mentioned in the past couple of posts that I've been reading a lot this year. I'm on to reading book nine (with book ten almost finished and ready to return to the library and book eleven as my current audiobook). And for 2014 I thought I'd be lucky to get in 25 books. I think I undershot myself on this year's challenge. (Josh even said to me tonight when I informed him of my speedy progress that I am a bad goal maker. I shoot either too high or too low. To my credit, I was right on par with last year's goal of 20.)

With everything I've been reading, I've been thinking about why I read what I do. I have an eclectic reading taste. I enjoy Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy, Chaim Potok, George Eliot, John Steinbeck, and Thomas Hardy. I also enjoy Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Agatha Christie. I like young-adult authors like John Green, Robert Cormier, Suzanne Collins, Markus Zusak, and Shannon Hale. I can be persuaded to read almost anything, even Stephen King. And when it comes to Harry Potter, I'm a die-hard.

Some of my bookshelves, unedited

When someone asks me for a recommendation, I have to know at least one thing before proceeding: Do you like unhappy books? I have several friends who don't enjoy reading books about tragedy, loss, or darkness. And that's okay. Everyone reads for different reasons. If you read to be entertained and feel good, then perhaps Jude the Obscure is not for you. But if you're like me, then something like The Road may be right up your alley.

My own motives for reading are diverse: to learn, to relax, to be entertained, to escape. To feel, to experience, to savor the language. I can't experience everything there is to experience in this life, not firsthand anyway. So I read. I read to briefly live others' lives. I read so that I can live my own life better. I read to expand my capacity for empathy. I read because if I didn't, I fear that I'd be missing out on such a beautiful sampling of humanity.

I had a friend a while back ask me if I would write a post about why I read J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. (It was a post that I think was intended as a guest post on her blog, but I let that ball drop completely. I'm chalking it up to having had a three-month-old at the time.) The Casual Vacancy is a book that received harsh criticism and mediocre reviews. I read it, and I can't say that I loved it. But I didn't hate it either. I'll probably never read it again, but I'm not sorry that I read it in the first place. So here I am, telling you why I finished it and why I like unhappy books.

The Casual Vacancy is a dark book. It's gritty and sometimes icky. I liked maybe two of the twenty-fiveish characters. And yet. That book presented such complex and thorough characters that you couldn't just love them or hate them. That book taught me that everyone is complex, that no one is two-dimensional. The Casual Vacancy is sad, tragic even. It tears at the humanity in your heart and leaves you at the last page feeling raw and unsure. And yet. I walked away from that book needing to be more compassionate, less judging, and more loving to the unlovable. And that, dear readers, is not a bad thing.

In the culture of my religion, we are encouraged to immerse ourselves in uplifting media, to seek media that invites the presence of God into our lives. I can see why some people choose to apply that by reading only that which has a happy ending, and I can't judge them for that. For me, though, I've found that I can feel God just as potently in tragedy as I can in triumph. I understand my faith in unique ways when I read unhappy books. For me, understanding a measure of darkness is essential if I want to understand and choose the light. As incomprehensible as it sounds, unhappy books are good for my soul.*

This post is not passing judgment on people who don't like unhappy books. I say that as long as you're okay with your reading guidelines, then no one should make you feel bad for liking what you like. Just don't let that long-established rubric limit you from books that have the potential to change you for the better.

Do you like unhappy books? Why or why not? What are your reading motives?

*For the record, I read plenty of happy books as well. Especially after finishing heavy books I need something fun and relaxing. After I finished The Stand this week, I promptly dived into an easy romance novel. It was a delight.


Ande said...

I like unhappy books. I still think The Book Theif is one of my favorite books. In my freshman year I had a three hour break in between classes and I went into the chapel on campus to read. I remember sitting in the chapel bawling, like actually bawling, when Rudy died.

I'm wondering how to read now. It takes me months to finish a book (unless it's amazing) now that I've got Zeph. Which is crazy. I think sometimes I forget that I can prioritize reading above other things.

I loved seeing your book shelves.

Amanda said...

My sister always laughs at the sad books I read. Thanks for describing why I like them. I feel like sad books teach me empathy and gratitude and endurance. Loved this post!

Breanna said...

I love this post! I was thinking about the exact same thing when my sister-in-law observed that I only read "depressing" books. I didn't love that description, but I couldn't articulate why. Your post does so perfectly!

I love reading to expand my realm of experience. But I was actually thinking about this last night, just after I finished Killing Jesus (and before that it was Elizabeth Smart's book). I was going to jump into I Am Malala but I just couldn't bring myself to emotionally take that one on. The other two drained me. So I opened "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?" instead.

It's all in the balance, I think.

Oh! And one more thing. I loved what you said about feeling close to God in tragic stories. I think people forget that Christ was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." He experienced the sum total of all the pain and suffering and sin that has ever been in this world, ever. When you understand that, the power of His atonement gains real power. And sometimes reading about REAL pain, suffering and sin helps me understand more about Christ.

As I mentioned, that's not all the time. But I think you get my point?

Katie said...

I love this, Charlotte! I tried typing my feelings on this a bunch of times but couldn't succeed. Once again, you said what I feel but can't say :) (I love that we both loved Jude the Obscure and The Road.)

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