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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Sad Books Again

Can we gain any consolation from sad books? What is it about them and about us that makes them worthwhile?

While I’m sure that a well-written, truly sad story, can also be life-enhancing and consolatory, it is very difficult to understand the mechanism that makes this possible.

There’s the pleasure we take from the writing, the beauty of it, the beauty of the events related, the symmetry, and somehow that works against the sadness. Somehow insulates us from it.

We understand that grief is designed as a healing process. That if grief is denied or ignored or somehow buried then the bereaved person can be damaged, even crippled. But if grief is worked through therapeutically it heals. And a sad book or poem can help us to do that.

It has to be truly sad, though. It doesn’t work if it’s sentimental, or if it’s in any way sugar-coated.

8 Responses to “Sad Books Again”

  1. crimeficreader says:

    A book I found sad in the last couple of years was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon. For me, it was sad because it realistically portrayed the frustrations of communicaton difficulties between those with Asperger’s syndrome and those without.

    For the protagonist, his world was seen though the veil of Asperger’s and he was frustrated where he could not understand the behaviour and impact of behaviour of the adults around him.

    Those of us without Asperger’s often find times when we cannot understand the behaviour of others, but we can often find a way of explaining and reconciling ourselves to others’ “quirkiness”.

    On the other side, those who do not have Asperger’s find it hard to relate to the thoughts and thought processes of those with Asperger’s. All of this was so readily apparent in the novel and it was sad to be reading a story based on misunderstanding and the inability to communicate effectively.

    But, it was a novel and a story and a satisfactory resolution occurred.

    In reading this novel I felt sad, but I can only enthuse about the extent of enlightenment I experienced. I started the book with an idea, some idea of what this syndrome meant. By the last page I’d achieved a close and detailed understanding of what it really is all about and how it impacts the lives of those who suffer and those who support the sufferers, as well as those who occasionally come into contact with a sufferer.

    The plus side for me was the learning process and this was learning through fiction. Very good fiction, where the author also chooses to highlight a specific point, (in this case a human condition), simply has to be well researched and realistic to work. In this regard, I think Haddon did well and made so many readers far more aware of Asperger’s and gave them an understanding that they might have escaped had they not read the book.

    Sad, but enlightening. A tale of distance and isolation, but also a tale of ultimately finding reconciliation of thought, human warmth and the feeling of love. I experienced far too much frustration when reading this book to think that it may be a sugar coated pill.

    And finally for some context – to be a child and experience the death of a pet, an animal, perhaps someone else’s pet, is traumatic. To be aware that the animal was murdered, stabbed by a fork and left on a neighbour’s lawn to die, is even more traumatic. To see all this with a different understanding of the world is something else entirely to someone with Asperger’s. It’s not necessarily heart breaking here, Haddon’s protagonist has a clearly defined focus that his mind pursues – he wants to find out who killed the dog, who murdered the dog.

    I am able to say most of this because I read the book and that is a testament to how well I was informed from reading.

    It is a sad tale. But from sadness there is hope. Without the positivity of hope where would we be?

    Thank you John for provoking my thoughts. I hope I did the topic justice.

  2. Minx says:

    How strange CFR, as I read John’s post I was already thinking along the same lines….

    I work with children who have Aspergers and Autism. I have attended every course and seminar going but it was not until I read ‘Somebody Somewhere’ by Donna Williams that I got a true, horrifying and accurate picture of this condition. As an autistic of relatively high function, Donna was able, for the first time, to give the outside world an insight into her emotionless and socially inept world. I cried for the things that she missed, the relationships that she could never maintain, her battle to stay in the real world.
    This book had a profound effect on me, both as a human being and as a practioner. From this sadness came a realisation, a new understanding, that I have hopefully projected into my work.

  3. Bhaswati says:

    There are some sad books that reflect reality in such stark terms that they slap the reader on the face. I am thinking of a masterly novel called “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. It is deeply sad, despair-filled, and the scenario looks rather hopeless by the end of the book. However, it’s rooted in reality, and that made it more alarming for me as a reader.

    So at times, such books also bring you too close to fact for your comfort, giving you a wake-up call of sorts.

  4. Maxine says:

    Partly a test to get my url right (thanks, John), but partly to concur with the comments above about the “Curious Incident”.
    I found this book more poignant than sad. At first it was quite comic, but in the later part, as the reader comes to understand how different “reality” is from the narrator’s conviction of it, I found it very moving.

    Interesting what you say, Minx: a friend of mine has a son who is Asperger’s (they have recently had the “diagnosis”). When she was telling me about this, I mentioned the book (CIDN) to her. She said that her son does not read any books, but he has spent the last several months avidly reading this one. Clearly something in the book connects to him.

  5. Polaris says:

    Hi John,

    Very nice blog!

    Recently, I read something beautiful about sad stories in an essay titled “On Some Functions of Literature” by Umberto Eco. It’s his opinion, and its a compelling one partly because of the way he writes it. I wish I had the essay before me, but I’ll try to paraphrase from what I remember. Eco says that sad stories acquaint the reader with the “notions of fate and the inexorable laws of life.” That Anna Karenina or Prince Andrei will, in the end come to grief, seems to be of secondary importance to Eco. What is paramount to him is that these characters, having garnered a sympathetic niche in the reader’s mind, will still hurtle inevitably toward their respective destinies. In that sense, literature prepares us for death. This seems very morbid of Eco, but I can’t argue against it.

    Now I recall Vikram Seth saying (mischeiviously) that he did not like “what Lata Mehta did” at the end of A Suitable Boy. It must have seemed to him like the only path she could have taken, even though as readers, most of us would have wanted otherwise.


  6. john baker says:

    Hi Polaris,
    Good to see you here.
    Interesting stuff from Umberto Eco. It would be good to have the exact quotation.
    But I’m sure that it’s connected with the inevitability. In my reading group tonight we were talking about Hardy’s Jude, and even though it’s many years since I read it, I clearly remember that it was precisely that that impressed me, the way that, once set on course, destiny could not be avoided at any cost.

  7. Polaris says:


    I’m home so I’ll type the last 2 paragraphs of the essay where Eco talks about the above:

    This is what all the great narratives tell us, even if they replace God with notions of fate or the inexorable laws of life. The function of “unchangeable” stories is precisely this: against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them. We need their severe, “repressive” lesson. Hypertextual narrative has much to teach us about freedom and creativity. That is all well and good, but it is not everything. Stories that are “already made” also teach us how to die.

    I believe that one of the principal functions of literature lies in these lessons about fate and death. Perhaps there are others, but for the moment none springs to mind”

    The book is “On Literature” by Umberto Eco, translated by Martin McLaughlin (From Vintage Books).


  8. john baker says:

    Thanks for that. It’s always humbling, isn’t it, when you know something but you don’t know that you know it until someone comes along and puts it into words?
    I’ve already ordered the book.

    And, by the way. I know this is something different but I happened to have this quote on my desk:
    Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.