There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.
When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.
In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.
My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?
I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.
What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.
- Bonnie T.