Daily Archives: March 9, 2011

Why I Read “Depressing” Literature: A Defense

As a new intern at the library, I must say I LOVE this environment—we’re always talking about books! But as the days wear on, I have slowly realized something: very few of my co-workers share my odd taste in books. The reason? I mostly read books where the subject matter is best described as “dismal.”

It’s not that I read the kind of books where everybody dies and every imaginable catastrophe happens. I’m just drawn toward books that express a profound sadness that is present in the mundane aspects of our daily lives. These are the kinds of books that leave me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, make me feel restless and questioning. And it’s exactly this effect that makes them worth reading—they make me question everything I usually take for granted. They are also some of the greatest books ever written.

If you’re thinking, “Hmm, this girl sounds crazy, but maybe I should give one of these depressing books a try,” these are the books to read.

Museum of InnocenceThe Museum of Innocence, Orham Pamuk. Pamuk’s novel is an incredible look at the possibilities of intense passion in a modern society. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “passion” can be traced back to the Latin word for “suffering,” and this novel easily demonstrates why:

…for most people, life is not a joy to be celebrated with a full heart, but a miserable charade to be endured with a false smile, a narrow path of lies, punishment and repression (275).

Passages like these make me wonder: is it better to live a normal, average life that’s nominally happy or to have an intense passion that could possibly end tragically? Is it perhaps possible to have both a grand passion and a normal life?

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. This novel is a standard on high school things fall apartreading lists, and standardly hated by high school students. I, however, was not one of the haters when I read it as a high school sophomore. Set in a Nigerian village, Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, a tribal leader, as he struggles to cope with a once-familiar environment that is drastically changing thanks to British colonialism. The tragedy of this book lies in the tension inherent in retaining traditional identities in the face of both modernization and the cultural assimilation of the younger generation.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s masterpiece has an incredibly unusual protagonist: Humbert Humbert, a scholar who becomes both infatuated and sexually obsessed with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter. Humbert kidnaps Lolita, but it is the child who initiates their first sexual contact. This book contains some of the finest prose ever written, and examines questions of sexuality and perversion. The most tragic aspect of the book is the examination of the battering of a young girl’s psyche and her attempts to live a normal life after childhood trauma.

None of these books are typical beach reading, although I confess I’m just strange enough to have read Lolita on my family’s last vacation to the Outer Banks. However, if you want extremely well-crafted literature that makes you think about, well, the gloomier aspects of life, these are perfect. Honestly, these books are so well-written, you will be stopping people around you—even random passers-by—to read parts out loud. I recommend carrying a notebook with you while you read the library’s copies, because you will want to write down parts that particularly strike you…

“If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.” Lolita (127)

—Shannon



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