Since reading is not part of my job, nor am I currently in school, I don’t really have to read anything. But maybe because reading is and has always been a major avenue of self-development, we in the bookish community often carry a heavy sense of obligation. We feel as though there are books we ought to be reading, because they form the basis of a good education, or they delve into important topics, or they have been declared Great by Those in the Know.
But why is it that many of these books tend to be depressing? In general, it seems that gloom is considered more serious and worth spending your time on than joy. Self-improvement (in the conventional view) consists largely of facing hard facts and becoming habituated to disappointment. To do otherwise is to remain in a carefree, childish state, incapable of coping with real life.
There’s something in that. A reading diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer, while delightful, would leave one ill-equipped to handle certain necessary realities. But can a book be serious and uplifting? Is there hope to be found in the dark?
Depression doesn’t have to do with facing the darkness. It means getting stuck in the darkness and seeing no way out. If one has even a little bit of leverage — a spark of humor, a glimpse of a better world, a flash of curiosity as to how we got into this mess and how we can emerge from it — then the quicksand hasn’t fully taken hold.
And so certain books that initially appeared daunting or grim to me have become some of my favorites, because they give the hope that grows from knowledge rather than blithe insensibility. They may make me feel angry, or sad, or appalled — but also energized by the challenge of grasping such difficult content. My view of the world has expanded, with shadows giving richness and nuance, and that’s a good thing.
However, sometimes I’m not in the mood, or I don’t have the strength to manage depressing topics and stories. I need restorative, up-building books at those times, and that’s all right. In time, when I’m feeling stronger, I can confront them again.
Meanwhile, books that wallow in pure nastiness, or seem determined to grind human endeavor to a fine gray powder, are always unappealing to me. And I’ve decided that I don’t have to read them, no matter how “great” they may be. I’ll spend my time in other ways.
Are there books you feel you ought to be reading, but don’t want to? How do you deal with that?