This is going to sound crazy, but misery is making me happy.
Not in real life, of course. In real life, misery makes me miserable, because I am more or less a sane person. But reading life is different from real life, and 2020 is exhausting and unnerving. Yet somehow, throughout what has got to be the longest year of my life, wallowing in tragic books is helping me claw my way to the light.
Every other reader I’ve talked to says that at times of stress, one should turn to comforting books. In 2020 we have faced a pandemic, political turmoil, racial injustice, angry protests and half of the country on fire. We find ourselves at odds with family and friends. We fear for our health. We fear for our jobs. We are awash in anxiety and dread.
So seeking comfort makes sense. Readers should be wrapping themselves in the warmth of childhood favorites. Flirting with light romance. Finding new ways to laugh (Carl Hiaasen is an excellent remedy for the blues). If we stick to upbeat stories in which everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, we’ll feel better. Right?
Why, then, does reading sad stories feel so good?
We don’t need to look hard for despair. It’s an arm’s length away on our phones. The future feels uncertain, and we need to know we will get through this time, that we can survive and thrive.
You know how I find reassurance? By reading books and connecting with characters who face hard times with courage and reaffirm all of the things that make us human.
In the books of 2020, people face unbelievable tragedy. Schizophrenia debilitates a Colorado family in Robert Kolker’s “Hidden Valley Road.” A still-grieving Natasha Trethewey, a former U.S. poet laureate, comes to terms with her mother’s murder in “Memorial Drive.”
You want to know what surviving the unthinkable looks like? Trethewey, who was a college student when her mother died, can show you.
Stories don’t even have to be real to be inspiring. Witness the hardscrabble courage of the Texas women in Elizabeth Wetmore’s “Valentine,” expected to stay silent in the face of violence (they won’t). Or the quiet strength of the Dublin maternity room nurse in Emma Donoghue’s “The Pull of the Stars,” who is literally trying to pull life from death in the middle of a plague. Or the determination of the sisters in C Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” to carve out a home in an America that continues to reject them.
Reading about characters who are facing seemingly insurmountable odds also provides a kick-in-the-pants reminder that our current situation could be a lot worse. I am wary of eating at my favorite restaurant, I can’t hang out with my friends, and the only seat I can get to watch my favorite bands is my desk chair (where I am already spending more than enough time).
But how bad is any of that, really? The young woman in Megha Majumdar’s “A Burning” is on trial for an act of terrorism she didn’t commit. The title character in Akwaeke Emezi’s “The Death of Vivek Oji” is — obviously — dead. And unlike the desperate families in Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind,” we’re not living through the end of the world. At least not yet.
We read for fun but also to make sense of our lives, and stories have always inspired us to examine our existence in new ways. What can we do when all seems lost? We can open our books — harrowing though they might be — and marvel over the examples of persistence and grace.
Of her terrible loss, Trethewey writes that “it is a story I tell myself to survive.” I plan to survive. How about you? I hear Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” is a real heartbreaker. Maybe it will help.
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.