The Wrong Type of Book for Difficult Times (at least for me)

Photo by Sarah Browning/Flickr

Photo by Sarah Browning/Flickr

I wrote a blog post earlier this week for Books & Such Literary Agency discussing the momentous books I read during momentous times. I listed off the mostly non-fiction stories that kept me occupied through the births of my children, my honeymoon and other significant moments. You can read the post here.

I’ve written before about “comfort novels,” books read when I didn’t want to belabor my brain too hard or when I needed a fast escape I could trust. That post is here.

Interestingly, I cannot recall what I was reading when my parents, grandparents, and in-laws died. I draw a blank in the library department at every death in my family.

I’m thinking of this now because eight friends have lost family members since June. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating death, weeping with those who weep, and remembering good times with people no longer walking the earth.

Something about death–the ending of life–puts more minor experiences into perspective and, I think, makes it harder to appreciate “art” that exacerbates the wound rather than tries to heal.

And that includes books.

Last night I picked up a current best-selling book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I hated this book. I can see how clever it is. I recognize the writing craft. I can admire how Flynn put the book together, but I’m not going to finish it.

After 125 pages, I gave up and read the ending. I don’t need to spend anymore time with it.

But why?

I’ve been a lay counselor most of my adult life. I’ve heard and continue to hear, many tragic stories. I volunteer with an organization that helps people in crisis. I want to save, I don’t want to destroy. The books I write have difficult things in them, but they’re full of hope by the end. I can’t live my life any other way.

Gone Girl is a mystery, a clever one, but its hero and heroine are vicious, nasty people who drink too much, swear too much, and waste their lives. It’s painful for me to read, particularly during a time when so many people I care about are suffering from the loss of a much loved spouse.

The counselor me kept shoving aside the reader me. I couldn’t get past, “can this marriage be saved?” to pay attention to what was happening to the plot. After awhile, I realized that if they didn’t want to change and have a happier life, there was no point in me continuing. So I read the ending and shut the book.

The ubiquitous “they” say you can tell a sophisticated wine drinker from a novice by the color of wine. I prefer white wine, which the wine afficionados explain makes me a novice or juvenile drinker because I need a sweeter drink.


Maybe I’m just a novice reader, then, preferring at least some ray of hope by the end of the story. If not, what is the point of reading it? I’ve got enough real life drama going on around about me, I don’t need to spend my time with fiction characters who prefer to wallow in pain rather than change their lives.

That sounds a little snippy from someone writing a Civil War novel full of tragedy. But in my novel people are dealing with a war thrust upon them, trying to find ways to survive with a modicum of happiness. They’re not using their grim circumstances to take pot shots at the people they allegedly love.

I’m interested in how people deal with difficult times–how they find the strength of character to get through events beyond their control and come out with some degree of peace.

Perhaps I feel that way because that’s the way I live my own life.

What about you? What types of books do you like to read when life is very hard?

Leave a comment


  1. Michelle, to this post I must utter a hearty “Here, Here!” I’m with you–by the end of a book, I want some HOPE! There’s enough reality, i.e. sad stuff, in this old world without having to wade through the muck and mire of it in fiction.

    I’m currently reading William Sirls’ novel, The Reason. I’m three-fourths of the way through, and although the story revolves around a youngster’s illness, there are also some modern-day miracles happening along the way that keep me reading. It’s actually pretty spine-tingling awesome. 🙂 Hope the ending lives up to the rest of the book!

    • It’s all in the tone and voice.

      I’ve read many, many difficult books (ask me for my Rwanda list sometime), and I can handle it if my protagonist has at least a few redeeming features. (But maybe not, my favorite character in The Book Thief was Death–probably because he was so sly and cynical), but I need to not feel like I was wasting my time. I want to learn something from a book, or at least take away fresh insight when I’m done.

      Thanks for commenting and tweeting.

  2. I totally get it!


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