Praising Melancholy With Depressing Books

I recently stumbled upon a new book by Eric G. Wilson called Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy and thought, “Ok, here’s a guy who gets it.” Wilson’s treatise argues that some folks are simply born a little sadder than others, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is a refreshing take on the matter for us melancholy types, who have been pushed and prodded by shiny, happy people all our lives to “smile” and “have fun,” “cheer up” and “stop being so morbid.” At last, we can hold up Wilson as our champion and proclaim “We’ll never change — we prefer to brood, thank you very much!”

And now, in praise of melancholy, I recommend five of my favorite depressing books:

1. Gertrude by Hermann Hesse — While all of Hesse’s work tends to be melancholy, Gertrude is especially so. Life altering injuries, unrequited love, suffering brilliance, and the tribulations of youth are all featured in my favorite of Hesse’s early novels.

2. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald — The Emigrants tells the story of four Jewish exiles and their far-from-happy post-Holocaust fates. The autumnal feelings invoked by Sebald’s writing will linger long after you’ve finished reading this book.

3. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq — The story of two half-brothers — one obsessed with sex, the other emotionally despondent — and their bleak treks through life and love. The world will seem just a little bit darker than usual after Houellebecq has shown it to you.

4. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami — Murakami’s “simplest” novel, and his first big hit in Japan, is a bittersweet coming of age story about a young college student’s love affair with his dead best friend’s emotionally unstable girlfriend. This story is pervaded by a quiet sadness that makes it especially suitable for autumn reading.  

5. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo — The classic tale of a World War I soldier horrifically wounded and left to indefinitely linger — hardly alive, but not quite dead — in a military hospital. Johnny Got His Gun will leave you with that familiar and comforting feeling of hopelessness.

Never cheer up, brave brooders!



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4 responses to “Praising Melancholy With Depressing Books

  1. Hear hear! And thanks for all those additions to my reading list…


  2. Cathy

    Hm, Wes, and you would be the last person that I would peg as melancholy…
    Another depressing book is Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza. Then you can move on to depressing movies…

  3. Fuu

    I’ve only read one novel from the five you listed, Norwegian Wood. Absolutely loved it. Brilliant prose coupled with a deceptively simple but poignant story nonetheless make this one of my favourite novels ever.

    I did a bit of research of Gertrude, but tbh, the prose seems rather clunky and cheesy. And in melancholy novels where the themes are generally more tenuous, prose can make or break said novels.

  4. Fuu, I’ve never read Hesse, but now I’m intrigued – I think I will try Gertrude first, just to see what you’re referring to…

    Thanks for commenting!


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