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I think that Grumpy Cat may, in fact, be one of the great existential philosophers of our time. I suspect that he has his finger (paw?) on the pulse of joy. After all, things fall apart. Life is suffering. I’ve already lost about half of you, right?
People generally fall into two camps when it comes to sad books: those who love bittersweet, melancholy, and regretful novels and those who don’t. I’m decidedly in the first camp. I want a novel that breaks my heart. And while it’s breaking my heart, I want it to show me humanity in a new, surprising, or different way. I’ve been reading When Things Fall Apart by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and one of the many things it has helped me understand is my attraction to what you might call sad books. Chodron describes how it is in leaning into pain rather than running from it that we discover peace:
"We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart… It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." (8)
Some of my favorite books have been called dark and depressing by others, but I’ve never experienced them as ONLY these things. Generally, I have also experienced them as beautiful, joyful, and even humorous. They present a fuller picture of what it means to be alive. Think of The Hours by Michael Cunningham—a novel so deeply moving that it’s in a handful of titles which I reread religiously. The novel is about desperation, loss, and suicide, yes. But, it’s also a book that treats life and humanity with reverence and awe:
"There is just this for consolation: an hour here or there, when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so." (225-226)
This passage alone makes Cunningham deserving of his Pulitzer Prize. Don’t you think?
A more recent novel that shares these attributes is A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. This is an exquisite literary debut about families, secrets, betrayals, class divisions, missed opportunities, and unrequited love. Spanning over 50 years and numerous geographies, the novel is the story of an unlikely friendship between two students, Hugh Shipley and Ed Cantowitz, who meet at Harvard in 1962. And while these two men seemingly have little in common, their bond will affect— in direct and indirect ways—the rest of their lives. The novel explores the constant push and pull of home and how the harder we try to erase our past, the stronger its power over us becomes.
A sad book? Yes, but also wonderful.
What about you? Are you a reader of sad novels? Why or why not?