A couple years ago I did something that felt a little crazy: I sold and donated a couple hundred of my books. At the time, I was moving… again (I would move 4 more times before settling where I live now) and hauling 6 rubbermaid tubs up and down stairs and in and out of trucks was getting a little old. I’d pared down my possessions with each consecutive move, but until then had treasured my vast collection of books. They were weighing me down. With that choice, I made a little extra money at Powell’s, but more importantly rediscovered a love from my past: the library. Because what is a library but a giant free bookstore?
At first I carefully put titles on hold from my ever-evolving reading list, but after a while I started browsing the stacks, pulling books with interesting titles or authors I vaguely recognized. I enjoy the randomness, the joy of finding a title I’ve logged in a small corner of my brain and then forgotten about entirely. That’s how I ended up holding Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees. Her name rang a bell and when I examined the cover and read “The author of A Little Life” a lightbulb went off. I added it to my bag without hesitation and made my way to the check out.
A Little Life was one of the titles that I handed off during my book purge, but because I adored it so much, I gave it to a friend rather than adding it to the donation pile. Be careful, I warned her, it’s pretty much 750 pages of pure tragedy. If you don’t believe me, please read it, it’s worth it, but be sure you’re in an emotionally solid place in your life. In his review in The New Yorker, Jon Michaud says it can “...drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life.” By the time I finished it, all I could think was “Why, Hanya Yanagihara, why do you torture your characters so?”
I had a feeling The People in the Trees would bring its own share of heart-wrench, but I eagerly read every word of it nonetheless. Though it didn’t cut as deep as A Little Life, the entire story leads you to a reveal at the end (no spoilers here!) that’s a perfectly timed punch in the gut.
And this made me wonder – Why am I so drawn to these books? My thought when I stumbled upon Yanagihara at the library wasn’t “Oh no, too depressing,” it was more along the lines of, “OMG MUST READ.” Other recent library finds include The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (about slavery) and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (political discord and murder of loved one). One of my all time favorite novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, makes me cry every time I read it. I’m not sure if you recall, but I recently set out looking for an alternative to my depressing reading routine, and found myself throwing aside a lighter, rather lauded novel in a huff.
When I dig deep, it’s hard to identify why I resonate with characters in pain. I don’t pity them or feel better about my own life in comparison. I don’t necessarily enjoy reading tragic stories. That’s not the word I’d use. At times, A Little Life went as far as making me physically uncomfortable not to mention off-kilter emotionally (Yanagihara truly walked a fine line of extremes). I can’t really call that joy, but maybe I enjoy the shock to my system. Of processing those stories in a similar way as when I process my own small tragedies. Of seeing others process their own sadness (regardless of real or fiction) and learning from their resilience. Like practice?
In an article for the Independent, researcher Tuomas Eerola lays out a study exploring why some of us are so drawn to sad music. The results? “People sensitive and willing to empathise with the misfortune of another person...are somehow rewarded by the process.” He goes on to explain two theories behind his conclusion:
A recent theory proposes that even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such an endocrine response, intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss….It is also possible that the effect is mainly psychological, where those who allow themselves to be emotionally immersed in the sad music are simply exercising their full emotional repertoire in a way that is inherently rewarding.
The same could be true for the way we experience stories. By reading my way through Yanagihara (or Shepard, Almond, Doer, Irving, Alexie, etc.) I am stretching my emotional muscles, engaging empathy for people I don’t know, who aren’t even real. But those feelings are real and there is an immense satisfaction in sticking with these characters through every word of their struggle. The ability to create that connection is what separates the truly brilliant writers from the mediocre masses.
In an interview with Electric Lit, Yanagihara lends some thought to the emotional process of choosing to read a book such as hers (though the context of the quote was in response to a question about trigger warnings):
To try to preemptively shield yourself from an experience — to say, in essence, this book is about something that I fear is going to really upset me, so I’d better protect myself by not exposing myself to it at all — is not only limiting, but also means you might be preventing yourself from experiencing something else, something you thought you never would, or never have.
And that, I suppose, gets to the heart of it. A book is a way to experience something you may never experience otherwise – that can be true of travels, adventures, and love, but also of heartache, pain, and perseverance. While on the surface one may seem better than the other, perhaps – as with Eerola’s music study – chemically and emotionally we process them the same.
I’ll admit it makes me feel a little better about my reading tendencies, like I’m not someone obsessed with doom and gloom, but rather interested in being emotionally engaged. Or at least maybe that’s just what I’ll claim the next time I’m at the library searching for my next, inevitably somewhat tragic read.