Do I have to read depressing books?

Posted May 19, 2019 by Lory in discussions / 36 Comments


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?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

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36 responses to “Do I have to read depressing books?

  1. Great discussion topic. I rarely enjoy a book that I’m forcing myself to read. Life’s too short. However, I can read grimness – but leaven it with lighter fare in between as needed.

  2. For books I feel that I should read but which I’m not sure I want to read, I usually decide based on page number. For books with less than 200 pages I’m reasonably brave and willing to tackle hard topics, if it is a longer work by a new to me author I generally pass or find a shorter work by the same author to try first. That way I do read outside of my reading comfort zon, but don’t risk getting completely stuck in a depressing tome.

  3. I tend to read depressing books and I often think about that (especially because boyfriend always questions my reading choices when he knows how I’m affected by them). But the thing is, we often read for the problem and the resolution, and well, most problems are tough. I think that’s part of it. But you’re right, there are books that are sunny despite talking about awful things (I’m thinking of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine right now). But I guess that’s what makes these books a masterpiece 🙂 it’s not easy write something sunny about tough stuff.

  4. This is a good topic for thought, Lory.

    On the one hand I see self-improvement or self-development as a process and you have to confront the darkness to get to the other side. But many books (and people!) seem to get stuck in that darkness or to purposefully want to stay there which is uncomfortable for me.

    On the other hand, there are characters in books whose life story is one such sad existence that we are meant to learn from and that’s where I wrestle with what it means to be a classics reader if I consciously spurn an author or a ‘great’ book, because I just don’t want to ‘go there.’ Obviously, I have not answered this question for myself, yet!

    • In reading Ethan Frome I came to this conclusion — our lives become extensions of the characters’ as we read, and so we have the power to change their depressing narratives into a better direction through our own learning and positive actions. However, sometimes I find that more difficult than others.

  5. Lizzie Ross

    Excellent question, Lory. But, these days, no reading seems grimmer than the day’s headlines. I also get depressed when I dig into my pile of NYRBs or LRBs — assessments of the current state of the world make me want to run to my own island (if I only had one) and hide. No matter how depressing a book is (and I’ve read some that are pretty bleak), it makes easier reading than an essay on the future of [select any current world-issue].

    • Hm, I suppose that’s true in the sense that a narrative from the past doesn’t involve characters or events that affect me directly in the present and immediate future. However, I would say the same things depress me in literature and the daily news: despair, greed, abuse, rigidity, all the darknesses that lurk in the human heart. We have to get to know these demons before we can fruitfully engage with them, and there’s certainly plenty of opportunity for that in our current world. What I would hope for from reading any kind of book is that it gives me tools or inspiration for the confrontation, and so I suppose that’s what I’m looking for now.

    • And yet Austen treated some tough topics herself — but as one of the geniuses who brought a deceptively light touch. I do very much admire that.

  6. I agree, if it’s really not working for you, you should stop – if you can. Though it took me a long, long time to develop that skill. There’s always the hope, the possibility, that it will, as you’ve said, suddenly transform into something wonderful and unexpected.

    • That keeps me going at times! But I have in later life given myself permission to stop reading if I feel I’m just not getting anything out of it.

  7. I think some kinds of novels are more intellectually nutritious than others. And I include comic novels in that–there’s a lot to think about in Douglas Adams novels.
    On the other hand, I’m not going to read a second novel by a novelist who seems to me to be wallowing in nastiness for its own sake. There are critics who think Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has some kind of redeeming value, but I don’t see it.

    • Wallowing in nastiness is not for me, no matter how fashionable it may be. But comic novels deserve way more respect — I’m not even being fair to Wodehouse and Heyer, as invoked above. They deal with problems of human relationships, miscommunication and misunderstanding, and ultimate reconciliation in a way that has perhaps helped me far more than thousands of depressing, weighty tomes could have done. Sometimes a light meal is just what one needs!

  8. What I like best is novels that uplift and help me feel better. Thus Elizabeth Goudge (whose day I failed to accomplish this year, but next year!). I do not like novels meant for entertainment that consist of, as my husband puts it, horrible people doing horrible things to each other — our video entertainment also works this way. If a serious novel is about difficult things, that’s fine, but I want some hope in there too; I want to get something good out of it, and I don’t like ugliness for ‘fun.’ Real life is quite difficult enough for me; I don’t need extra!

    Non-fiction, though, is kind of a different story for me. I often feel…kind of obligated? to understand things that have happened in history and how people have suffered, like those things should not be forgotten and I have something of a responsibility to know a bit about them. So I’ll read about gulags all day long, but it’s not for entertainment. I have these categories in my head, they’re probably pointless 🙂

    • Right, I did not make a distinction there. I guess for me there’s not such a big difference. Fiction that aims to entertain by being disgusting is … disgusting. But if it wants to inform and enlarge our experience, even extending into some of those grotty corners we may not want to look at, then it serves a worthwhile purpose. As does nonfiction that brings us such information.

      But even nonfiction is not just pure facts, it has a point of view and a narrative line (especially in history) and it can be uplifting to view even difficult events from a wider perspective. I’m wary by now of making any “Hooray, that’s great!” response to any events whatsoever in the outer world, because it seems there’s the inevitable backlash/downturn. But that means that likewise, I shouldn’t get so upset when things don’t go the way I think they should, because that won’t last forever. What is the bigger picture, that lifts us out of the slough of despond? That’s what kind of fascinates me right now.

  9. I think for me the writing style is key. You mentioned in the comments Jane Gardam and while I’ve only read the Old Filth Trilogy and Crusoe’s Daughter, I think she is brilliant.

    John Irving is another writer who comes to mind (though it has been many years since I read him) who wrote books that made me cry but never afraid to turn the page. It was sort of cathartic to read his books.

    What I dislike is authors who, in my perception, use tragedy and pile on the terrible events to manipulate their characters and the reader. Often, these are books that are very popular and much lauded. But I find them often unsubtle and unappealing.

  10. I can relate very strongly to this: I started reading Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche and had to stop, it was too unrelentingly horrific and so powerfully written, I could not bear it.

    I think we all have our different measures of what is depressing and as you say our moods can affect that, so it’s hard (with that one exception, which is the only book I’ve ever found too upsetting to finish) to specify how bleak or unredeeming fiction can be before it becomes upsetting.

    An important difference for me here is that through fiction you experience things often quite viscerally, but non-fiction usually gives you some distance. And reading fiction has to involve some sense of pleasure, which can include trying to understand why people do things. I don’t mean it has to offer redemption or a happy ending necessarily – I can get that pleasure from the writing style or the characters or whatever, though Sunday by the Pool in Kigali revealed that I have limits.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t believe anyone should be reading anything because they feel they ‘have’ to. (Well, unless they DO have to, say for work.) 🙂

    • It’s a personal thing for sure. There are trigger points and categories of gloom that one person responds to differently than another. There are books that I personally love which another reader might find too melancholic to tolerate. And a beautiful writing style can compensate for a lot; I think I find dull, heavy-handed prose as depressing as anything else.

      Anyway, by now I’m glad I can give myself permission not to read whatever I want for whatever reason. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re unwilling to confront hard realities in life.

  11. It’s funny, right now I thought I was looking for escapist literature – dealing with a baby has left me not wanting to deal with anything too heavy. But then I started listening to Anna Karenina on Audible and I’ve been hooked! So I guess I can go either way on depressing books.
    I do think that I am getting better at setting down certain books that really aren’t going to be right for me but strangely I’ve been very drawn to literature about pregnancy and motherhood even though I thought I would find it too much. I guess I’m just processing how my life has changed and fiction is how I do that? Definitely something for me to think about. Thank you for the post 🙂

    • I would not actually call Anna Karenina depressing, it’s not one-sided enough… there’s more to it than Anna’s tragic doom. I suppose that’s what saves certain books for me, the existence of some counterbalancing element. Still thinking about it since this post!

      I’m so glad books are there to help us process our lives. That’s a good definition of the purpose of reading for me! And sometimes they do it in surprising, unexpected ways, which is also good. There’s no way we can plan and control everything … as one quickly learns with a baby around. 😀

  12. It really grinds my gears that we take what I call “misery” books (death, war, trauma, etc.) so much more seriously than we do funny books or erotic books or books that are more positively stimulating. If you take a look over the Booker winners, or the Pulitzers, in large part they’re dealing with really heavy subject matter in a really devastating way. That’s why I try to make a point of calling attention to alternatives on my blog – I want to emphasise that “happy” books aren’t necessarily “fluff”. In my view, for instance, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far more searing and insightful analysis of American society in the ’20s than stinking miserable Gatsby.

    That’s not to say I don’t read depressing books – I try to choose carefully, so that I’m not picking one up when I’m in a downswing emotionally/in my personal life, that’s a bit much! – but I just try to refute the notion that they’re the only “books worth reading”.

    Great post, doll – thank you! ❤️

    • I’m also particularly irritated by the assumption that only the grimmer books can be great or worthwhile. The award lists do tend to reflect that.

  13. This is such a great discussion post! I really struggle with depressing books, but I do try to expand my horizons. I definitely have to be in the right headspace before diving into something more difficult than my usual reads.

  14. Your conclusions here resonate with me! I do think books on serious topics can be important, fulfilling reads, but I also sometimes just want something fun. And books that ‘wallow in nastiness’ or completely despair of humanity aren’t really my thing either.

  15. Life is too short, and I am no spring chicken, so when a book sounds too boring or not well written, even if everyone is gaga about it, I ignore or DNF it to dedicate my time to better written books. Unless I made the mistake of requesting the book for review, in which case I always finish and review it – and not hiding my hatred!

    • Good for you for keeping to your review agreements. I confess when I don’t enjoy the book I find it really hard to do that. This is why I very seldom request books for review any more!