I have been wondering about sad books for a little while now. I think it started sometime in August when I finished a novel called My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult, a novel which just shattered me into a million pieces. Currently, I am reading a book called If I Stay by Gayle Forman and I am hardly fifteen pages in but I am already getting heartbroken. I am just going to share a paragraph from it here to give a feel of the first few pages of the book:
“I see Dad first. Even from several feet away, I can make out the protrusion of the pipe in his jacket pocket. “Dad,” I call, but as I walk toward him, the pavement grows slick and there are gray chunks of what looks like cauliflower. I know what I’m seeing right away but it somehow does not immediately connect back to my father. What springs into my mind are those news reports about tornadoes or fires, how they’ll ravage one house but leave the one next door intact. Pieces of my father’s brain are on the asphalt.”
Here’s something else: the narrator is not ‘intact’, she’s also extremely hurt but I will leave it at that for the time being.
So why do we like sad books?
I feel it is worse for me because I tend to seek out sad books. I make conscious efforts to search for and find sad books. On kindle I search for the tag ‘sad’, I go on goodreads.com and search for books before buying, I look for quotes that seem sad, I find sad taglines and such things. When I go to bookstores, I read blurbs for hours of a plethora on books to seek out which ones I envisage could be the saddest and buy them. I am a sucker for sad stories. And here is the thing, I am not alone. Many people prefer heart-wrenchingly, paralyzingly sad books to the happier, sugary ones.
I have a few things to say on this.
There’s a Greek term in the field of dramatic art called Catharsis which basically describes the effects that tragedy (and comedy) have on the audience. The dictionary defines Catharsis as I would like to describe it for the purpose of this post: ‘the act or process of purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art.’ For me, I see it as this: We come to sad stories because we want to be relieved of something even if that something may only exist in our minds or in our thoughts. I read sad books because they tend to have this ability to cleanse me of infirmities that are only emotional in existence. I am purged when I read a sad book. It is a somewhat difficult concept, I must confess.
Also, when things are too happy, they seem unreal, unnatural. A sad book is something that is likelier to happen in the real world because the world is actually a sad, messed up place where bad things happen to good people. Life is not a bed of roses and sad books remind us of this. Happily ever afters, most of the time, only ever happens in fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White and Rapunzel (and Shrek).
I enjoy a book that takes my emotions on a rollercoaster journey. I need characters that are flawed, just like me, broken, just like me. I want to be able to sympathize with a character in a book because life is happening to him, because life is happening to her as it happens to every other person. I want to be able to question the things that I have accepted with open arms before and I want the writer to give me a fantastic reason to question those things. I want to be told by a good story that many times, life is no utopia: that utopia is inexistent, that happiness is not a butterfly and that it is okay for things not to be perfect.