(cartoon from here)
Everyone’s reading habits change with time and I’m no exception. Once upon a time I though Paulo Coelho should get the Nobel. Once upon a time I cried buckets over Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember. But I got more discerning, cynical and thankfully much more choosy. I don’t know if I’ll still change a lot because lately my tastes seem to have stabilized, except on one point: my ever-declining tolerance for depressing, melancholic and generally “tough” books. I would have guessed that with age (I’m 31 by the way) I would increase my delight in inner-angst and the hardships of life but alas, all I want now (and more and more) is to be entertained and a healthy dose of escapism.
Don’t’ get me wrong, I don’t need to escape because I’m unhappy, life’s been good to me so far, but the fact is that just 10 years ago I enjoyed reading the likes of The Grapes of Wrath and now I would not, even if it’s a master piece. Nope, I don’t want to read about the child-soldier from Sudan who made it out alive, even if it’s an inspiring story of survival. I often wonder: how could my 19-year-old self actually go through all three “A Child Called It” books?! It would be unthinkable today.
Looking back now, I’m glad I read some “tough” books earlier on because I’m perfectly aware that otherwise I would miss some amazing stories. For instance, in my teens I read 1984, Jude the Obscure and almost all other Thomas Hardys, Germinal, some Russians and they blew my mind. They changed (improved?) the way I read, think, vote, travel, live… so in a way I wish I was attracted by others I suspect would also have a great impact: Heart of Darkness, Sophie’s Choice, The Bell Jar, A Fine Balance.
This whole syndrome also applies to movies. I look back and am absolutely amazed how I actually went to see Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda and The Pianist. Now I would enter the cinema almost as I go into the dentist: it’s good for me, but there will be pain (“it’ll be over in a minute and then you’ll be glad you came”).
So what changed? No idea. Not only I avoid sad books, I cannot for the life of me understand what makes people want to look for these types of books in particular. Have you seen the amount of people online asking for recommendations for sad books? Is it normal to want to purposely be sad? My best friend loves to read about WWII and dictators. Not just about the macro-politics of it all, she really wants to know about the gas chambers, cannibalism in the Siege of Leningrad and genocides, all the gory details. She says it makes her feel better about her own life. Is that it? Or maybe to know you’re not alone in feeling heartbroken or depressed? That life is not only cruel to you in particular? Sadism? Voyeurism? Masochism?
My theory: we’re all looking for an emotional connection with the books we’re reading and for some people that’s easier with something sad than something happy. It must also be easier to write a good sad and miserable book than an uplifting one which is not too sugary. Humor in particular is a mine field – it can go so wrong.
So what’s your relationship with sad books? Do you avoid them? Prefer them? Do you balance them with a more relaxing book afterwards? Are you more or less tolerant of depressing books as you grow older?