The Light on the Page: Seeking Solace in Sad Books

June 12, 2018 | 8 books mentioned 10 min read

1.

The pages of a book give off light. That is to say, regardless of the exact hue of white used as backdrop for paper or screen, when you open a novel or a book of essays or, most especially, a poetry collection, its pages quite literally illuminate your face as you take them in.

How else but this radiant phenomenon to explain a peculiar practice of mine—a counterintuitive quirk, like choosing to walk up stairs backwards, or watching cable news for reasoned analysis. The strange habit is: When I am sad, I seek out the darkest, bleakest books I can find. The books that, having skimmed the first paragraph of their jacket-flap descriptions, you flinch at before placing them back on the shelf, preferably with their distressing covers facing inward. Has the earth come to an end before the story’s opening sentence? Great. Does its world contain a cast of emotionally damaged characters, so traumatized it seems improbable they’ll ever recover? Perfect. Recount humanity’s race to the bottom, in terms of describing an intrinsic and therefore inevitable manifestation of evil? Wonderful. Ring me up, kind bookseller, so I can bring this volume back to my darkened cave. Maybe then, via some mysterious process of irradiation, the object itself will start to brighten my days.

On its surface, this choice makes no more sense than any of depression’s other masochistic exercises, its self-defeating punishments and denials. It seems reasonable to think that my practice of meeting real life’s suffering with its narrative equivalent might just be a way to reinforce my own unhappiness—to find more sadness in which to wallow.

But if you’ll entertain the premise that reading is a fundamentally social experience—not how it looks, I realize, what with the reader having chosen an inert object over the breathing, pulsing beings around her—my tendency suddenly becomes much more comprehensible. Though we may appear solitary, each time we enter the world of a book, we’re very much in the presence of others: the characters, the author, the many people who midwifed her words into print—every person who has read this story and will, still. We quip that misery loves company, as if those afflicted with sorrow just have an acute case of schadenfreude, but I think the truth is actually that the miserable need company for their very survival—that the unbearable sadness of being—sometimes just being—feels a little bit lighter for having found itself in other people articulating hard times.

Put another way, maybe I read dark books when I’m feeling dark because at least then, I won’t be in the dark alone.

2.

Inpatient psychiatric stays are a lot like air travel: Movement is highly proscribed, the food isn’t very good, and when you check in, the authorities go through your personal belongings to make sure you’re not smuggling any sharps.

coverWhen I arrived at Lenox Hill Hospital a decade ago, I didn’t have any identifiable weapons; I did, however, smuggle in a blade, in the form of José Saramago’s Blindness. That novel, the paperback version with slim black letters on a white cover, was my constant companion, the comfort object at my side during group sessions and art therapy and visiting hours. It accompanied me every morning to my assessments with the short coats, which was what I called the residents fresh from medical school. I called them that because they were outfitted in the knee-length coats of doctors-in-training but also because I needed a way to abide the distance between us. We were the same age, yet somehow I’d detoured so far from the upward trajectories we’d once shared. How had I strayed while they’d continued along their straightaways to success? The only scrap of pride I could claim was to grip my copy of Blindness as they ran through their clinical checklists, hopefully confusing their diagnoses with my simultaneous depression and bookishness. Sure, they might be finishing up med school, but at least I was making time to read fiction.

Anyway, Saramago’s story is epic. One by one, the inhabitants of a nameless country succumb to an epidemic of “white blindness,” their vision reduced to “a thick, uniform white color as if…plunged with open eyes into a milky sea.” As more people fall victim to this unexplained plague, the government quarantines its first victims in an abandoned insane asylum, a coincidence that made me grin (in my experience, severely depressed people often have great senses of humor, even if it does tend toward the gallows variety). In Saramago’s allegory, society descends into a harrowing gauntlet in which chance determines one’s survival just as readily as bravery or intelligence; scenes of privation, sexual violence, and emotional betrayal follow. “This is an important book,” says a blurb from The Washington Post on the back cover, “one that is unafraid to face all the horrors of the [20th] century.” It seems hardly the kind of narrative to buoy the spirits of a person suffering from suicidal tendencies.

And yet Blindness threw me a lifeline. Its central cast was going through a far more dramatic version of my own experience: In life, arguments broke out at each meal, though no one in my unit came to blows over who took the last boxed milk. In the book, the city’s authorities make ironic announcements over the asylum loudspeakers about how its inmates, “the upright citizens they doubtless are,” should continue to “assume their responsibilities,” such as collecting a spade so that they can dig a grave for one of their fellow internees. The staff at Lenox Hill, trying to combat the entropy endemic to a ward filled with psychological dysfunction, suggested that “higher-functioning patients” help with the housekeeping.

More than our existential parallels, though, the book helped me maintain my sense of perspective during an intensely self-absorbed time. Saramago’s descriptions of suffering were a reminder of how great the scope of history was compared to the current moment, my own insufficiencies cast into proper relief against the darkness of the past. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t continue to think about my own individual failures, perceived or real (in retrospect almost all perceived, depression tending to make people their own worst critics). As it had so many times in the past, sorrow continued to eclipse part of my vision. But I was forced to admit that things could be far, far worse; cold comforts are still comforts. I also cared about what happened to the book’s characters, which meant I was still capable of care.

cover“While life is not only about pain, the experience of pain, which is particular in its intensity, is one of the surest signs of the life force,” writes Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Or more poetically, in the words of the only sighted person in Saramago’s asylum, “[it’s] just as well that we are still capable of weeping, tears are often our salvation, there are times when we would die if we did not weep.”

3.

coverTo clarify: I only like particular kinds of sad reads when I’m sad. I can’t bear the news, for one. In this, I’m the opposite of The Bell Jar’s narrator Esther Greenwood, who finds the dailies “were the only things I could read” in her increasingly estranged condition. During aimless summer afternoons in Boston Common, Esther scans their pages for the most macabre stories she can find.

“SUICIDE SAVED FROM SEVEN STORY LEDGE!” shouts one tabloid, prompting her to observe:

The inky black newspaper paragraph didn’t tell why Mr. Polluci was on the ledge, or what Sgt. Kilmartin did to him when he finally got him in through the window.

The trouble about jumping was that if you didn’t pick the right number of storeys, you might still be alive when you hit bottom. I thought seven storeys must be a safe distance.

I haven’t read much news over the last year, which really says as much about my mental state as it does this disastrous U.S. presidency. Being so uninformed has made me feel monstrous. It bears out my anxiety that fiction is just an amusement reserved for the privileged; like I’m participating in what Lydia Kiesling calls “the cowardice of the novel reader.”  

Learning how to manage a mood disorder means coming to know your limits, though, and if I’m already close to the edge, hearing about any given day’s injustices only makes me want to lean out further, just to see how far down the drop is. Books call me back from the window and suggest, gently, that I crank the casement shut for now. The view will still be there tomorrow.

4.

coverThe Road is an isotopic nightmare, a vision of hell on earth: a requiem. In that ever-expanding literary genre of postapocalyptic novels it remains the ne plus ultra, and for good reason. What it gets right that so many other world’s-end books don’t, I think, is the sheer monotony of daily life a few years into a nuclear holocaust. Existence isn’t just bleak; it’s dull, which if you ask me is also a pretty good description of depression.

I devoured Cormac McCarthy’s grim novel during a particularly acute downturn, that one during a long stretch of convalescence and underemployment after moving back in with my dad at age 30. Like an addict on a bender, I returned day after pain-riddled day to The Road’s fallow fields, its relentless rains and sky turned the Gaussian blur of grey ash. I could have read any number of books with other, sunnier premises, but at the time cheer seemed only to highlight the chasm between how I felt and the productively occupied world outside. Instead, my spirit joined McCarthy’s father-and-son travelers, wandering alongside them through an endlessly etiolated terrain in search of something better.

“That’s all there is, isn’t it,” says the boy on one of the book’s numb, numberless afternoons. He’s talking about a too-small serving of raisins, though it’s a perfect example—n.b., fiction writers—of dialogue as metaphor. “Yes,” comes the father’s response.

Their laconic conversation continues, the son like all kids full of questions, annihilation scenario notwithstanding:

Are we going to die now?

No.

What are we going to do?   

We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep going down the road.

OK.

covercoverOther books I’ve read during times of personal despair—Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Joshua Ferris’s (to my mind highly underrated) The Unnamed, the exquisite and heartrending Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala – share this same Beckettian doggedness. You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, each of these books says. Also, we will experience pain, yes, but we will also encounter grace.

5.

coverWhile writing this essay, I became curious about whether I was alone in my somber, sobering ritual, so like any reader, I went looking in the literature to find out. The most obvious place to start seemed to be Richard Burton’s definitive record of dysthymia, The Anatomy of Melancholy. At more than 1,000 pages, Burton’s magnum opus is a compendium of thought about sadness from antiquity to the book’s final publication in 1651 (five editions of the Anatomy appeared during his lifetime, each one larger than the last).

coverI like to imagine that if you were suffering from what Burton described as an excess of bile, reading his book would have created a sense of fellowship with the hundreds of sources referenced in its sections—provided, that is, that you were literate, white, and male. Indeed, among Burton’s fans was the British literary critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who was about as literary, white, and male as a person can be, and who cited the melancholic’s commonplace book as the only thing “that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise”—surely the best blurb ever elicited from a depressive. (Johnson also described his own illness, long before Churchill, as a black dog, which anyone who’s ever been around a black dog knows is utter nonsense. Dogs are the best.)

In any case, the Anatomy advises that those stricken by “this feral plague” of suffering seek out reading, but of a diverting or edifying nature (“for what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts, and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader!”). Sad texts are apparently contraindicated, perhaps out of fear of some kind of metaphysical contagion. Then again, Burton also suggests bloodletting from the ankles of virgins, so I pressed on.

Arriving early in the last century at the union of psychiatry and library science, I met their winsomely named lovechild, bibliotherapy (a term coined in a 1916 issue of The Atlantic to describe the practice as it was being used with World War I veterans). Today the American Library Association provides the following guidelines for exegetical healing on its website:

Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevant solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience.

Identification, catharsis, insight: I bristle a little at such a prescriptive use of reading, but it would be dishonest to say I’m not after similar transcendence with my own literary self-medication. Each time I’ve looked to sad books for solace, it was because I needed assurance that despite how low I felt in the moment, I should keep trying at this life thing—that maybe, actually, going forward would be worth it not just in spite but because of the difficulty.

Importantly, those books observed suffering without sentimentality. More than once in her essays, Rebecca Solnit quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf, words written by the latter in her journal at the outset of World War I: “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Woolf’s statement is an “extraordinary declaration,” says Solnit, all the more so considering it came only six months after Woolf’s failed suicide attempt. “[I]t’s a celebration of darkness, willing—as that I think indicates—to be uncertain even about its own assertion.”

It’s this uncertainty that Solnit suggests creates the grounds for something other than the present reality, which is to say it creates the grounds, during troubled times, for hope. When we affirm pain we also affirm all that is precious, a paradox that allows the one to lead to the other. Without darkness, there is no light.

Image: Flickr/Anant Nath Sharma

is social media editor at The Millions. She lives in Brooklyn where she's currently working on her first novel. Find her online @kirstinbutler, and of course, on The Millions‘ feeds.

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