In Defense of So-Called Depressing Books

The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Thanks to my friend, Erin, this is the next book on my reading list.
The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Thanks to my friend, Erin, this is the next book on my reading list.

Last weekend I asked Matt if he wanted to walk to the library with me because I had a book on hold. “Oh God,” he laughed. “What is it now? Is about blindness?”

“Not this time,” I said. It was actually How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights (which I am finding more depressing than my usual death and disease books).

It’s now a joke in our house that I am always reading so-called depressing books. I’ve read dozens of books—by memoirists and scientists and journalists—about chronic illness, about humans’ ability (or lack of ability) to deal with mortality, about the strange shit that befalls people, through no fault of their own.

For instance, on a recent walk around the Rose Bowl, Matt and I covered such topics as anorexia, dwarfism, and the political implications of cochlear implants for the deaf. Not that we don’t talk about the things most young couples talk about, like buying a house/having kids/eloping in Vegas. It’s just that our discussions are punctuated by the knowledge that anything can happen at any time, and nothing is guaranteed. This is the wisdom earned through illness.

Although I sometimes feel weird about my reading habits (at work, I hid The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression in a drawer), I would argue that reading so-called depressing books has made me a smarter and more compassionate person:

  • I now know how to help a blind person cross a busy intersection.
  • I don’t pity people in wheelchairs anymore.
  • I’m not shocked and appalled when a friend tells me about her family’s history of mental illness and suicide.
  • When my friend is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I don’t tell her that she’ll get better, or that she should simply think positive thoughts.
  • I’ve stopped thinking that I’m better than other people.
  • I try to relate to people who are different than me—this is easier in the abstract and harder in the material world, but the more exposure I have to difference, the easier it is.
  • I don’t take myself and my “dreams” so seriously anymore. In a culture that prizes ambition, this may be seen as a defeat, but I find it freeing.

Stay tuned for a recommended reading list of so-called depressing books. In the meantime, please feel free to share your recommendations!