Why Do We Love to Read Paralyzingly Sad Books?

Hurts So Good (Part I of II)
By Rachel Meier

For years, people have been guessing around at why, as a species, we love to do things like watch hideously depressing movies or read paralyzingly sad books.

And while I’m sure your analyst could have a field day teasing apart just what, specifically, about your childhood led you to your particular sad-book propensity, I’m going to put forth a generally applicable theory and then leave you with a selection of titles that will make you hurt so good.

Books with only heart-breaking plot points, utterly unlikable characters, dysfunction piled atop dysfunction have no choice but to rely on the clarity of the prose and ingenuity of the structure to provide the book’s redemption.

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In other words, when the content is all hideousness the form has got to be all brilliance. In other other words, it allows great writing to shine through unadulterated.

I’m plotting six books on a pain spectrum ranging from sociological angst to everybody is dead.

revolutionary-road-63So, without further ado, Revolutionary Road. Utterly terrifying in its mundanity, Revolutionary Road is a novel about a young married couple who have all of the outer trappings of success but can’t shake the growing feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration at the failed potential of their relationships, careers, intellects, and dreams. Yates’ ability to capture the depth and variance of the ennui that most everyone experiences at one point or another is what carries this novel.

man-who-loved-childrenThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is an unsparing and disturbing psychological portrait of a family in crisis. The story engulfs the reader, dragging them down with the Pollitts into a suffocating world of dysfunction, horror, and manipulation. If you liked The Corrections or anything by Flannery O’Connor, Christina Stead is for you.

vets-daughterNothing quite ticks the way it should in the astounding, precise novel by Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter. You think you understand how sentences work, how people work, how morality works? You don’t, at least not in this novel. A startling look at a young woman who is subtly but irrevocably divorced from the world around her. Unforgettable in the ways it portrays distance and isolation.

Stay tuned for more pain and suffering next week, brought to you by Read it Forward and Rachel Meier. Part II of this article will be published on April 11.

In the meantime, leave a comment with your favorite paralyzingly sad book. When was the last time a book made you hurt so good?

Rachel Meier tries to tell as many people in as many places as possible what to read. These days, she is bossy about books at the Christian Science Monitor and on her blog.

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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