My husband and I have a funny ongoing refrain at night when we settle down to read. As he picks up his latest spy thriller, he glances over to my overflowing pile of books on my nightstand and asks, “So, which depressing book are you planning to read tonight?” I proceed to pick one of the many books about abuse, heartache, family drama, the Holocaust, loss, racism or poverty, or historical fiction from war zones all over the world and eventually tears are streaming down my cheeks as I finish the last page. By this point in our 17-year relationship, he already has Kleenex at the ready.
There are many people in my life that question how I can tolerate reading so many “depressing” books so much of the time. I am an emotional and sensitive person and given that the news already depresses me on a daily basis, I question my desire to read books dealing with hard subjects. But there are reasons why reading these heavy books actually works to soothe my soul and give me hope. First, I think the mere fact of someone coming through hardship to tell their story or creating a work of fiction that creates empathy for other experiences is, in and of itself, a huge win for humanity. I think we need more, rather than less, connection with others. When I feel the emotion of the book, I think we are doing the important work of communal healing. I also use these books to remind myself what really matters in the world. Even if I don’t face the same hardships, books where the characters are going through something difficult reminds me about what is important in my own life. I find that I hug my kids a bit tighter at bedtime right after I surface from a good read. Finally, I still believe there is nothing quite as powerful as a good cry to relieve the tension or stress of the day.
Looking at some of my favorite books of this year— On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Women Talking, The Nickel Boys, Disappearing Earth, An American Summer, The Education of an Idealist, Red at the Bone (Tickets are still available to meet Jacqueline Woodson this Wednesday, the 25th)—I can already see a pattern where the authors are grappling with some intense emotions and I am only too happy to be along for the ride. If you want to take a chance on any of these titles, I’ll promise I’ll provide the tissue for free.
Casey Coonerty Protti
Bookshop Santa Cruz