Happy books once again

I got some very interesting comments to that post on happy books I wrote a couple days ago — thank you! — and they got me thinking. First of all, I realized that my own claim about not paying attention to whether books or happy or sad or something in between isn’t quite true. When I pick up a title that’s new to me I’m not all that concerned about what type of ending it has or whether the book’s mood is light or heavy. But it’s different with re-reading. I realized that one of the charms of Jane Austen novels, which are among my favorites in the whole world, is their happy endings. When I re-read them, which I do fairly regularly, one of the reasons I do it is because of the comforting quality of the happy resolutions. I suppose most of the time I feel ready for the challenge of whatever I might find — happy or sad, serious or light — in new books, but other times I want the familiar, and the familiar is usually happy.

(That said, though, even those Jane Austen novels don’t always have perfectly happy endings — isn’t Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley just a little odd, more like a father/daughter relationship than a husband/wife one? And Marianne’s marriage from Sense and Sensibility? Edmund and Fanny?)

A number of people suggested that my students wanted entertainment out of their reading rather than to be hit with seriousness and sadness, and I think that’s true for some of them. For some, they don’t like reading and so they were wishing the experience could fly lightly by, as though they were reading fashion magazines or something. For others, they like reading but prefer to read something that’s going to leave them with a happy buzz — that’s not really going to challenge them.  One student mentioned the Chicken Soup for the Soul books once, and I worked hard at not rolling my eyes.

But others are good readers and serious students, so for them, the explanation is different. For these students, I think it’s more a matter of how they understand the world and how their view of literature fits with that understanding. Some are very aware of how harsh life can be, and they seemed not to want to be reminded of it again — they didn’t want to have to dwell on it while doing their homework and sitting in class. I can kind of understand this, but I don’t share the feeling — reading and thinking and talking about the harshness of life I find comforting because it makes me feel less alone.

I’m remember now, though, that students were more likely to make this sort of comment at the beginning of class, and by the end they seemed to like whatever it was we read a little better. I think I tried to communicate what inspires me about the stories in the hope that they would find their own sources of inspiration, and sometimes I think they did.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

8 responses to “Happy books once again

  1. “reading and thinking and talking about the harshness of life I find comforting because it makes me feel less alone.”

    Yup. I recently heard a classical record producer say, in effect, that great art is that which makes use feel that we are not alone. I think that’s the best definition of art I’ve ever heard!

  2. I can easily see how rereading you’d want to choose uplifting books – that makes sense. I always feel that literature is fundamentally paradoxical. It shows us how disaster has unexpected benefits, and how what’s supposed to be ‘the right thing’ has unexpected consequences. I like it best when it recognises the inherent ambivalence of so many of our feelings. And yes, also, to what Sylvia said.

  3. I also think there is something in the idea of literature and shared experiences and feelings–and feeling less alone. Do you ever read a book, though, where you will never, ever go though what a character has gone through–and it just makes you feel helpless? Sometimes I wonder if I get too inside a book–but it can be hard not to invest some emotions in what you are reading–especially if the author is really good at what he/she is trying to do. Of course this is probably another topic entirely! :)

  4. Oh, I absolutely agree with that notion of reading so as not to feel so all alone. I’ve done that all my life. It’s wonderful to know I’m not the only one to suffer heartbreak or to struggle with being someone who wants life to be fair living in a world that is innately unfair. And I know that the things I find most funny are the things in which authors are pointing out absurdities or their own flaws to which I can most relate.

  5. LK

    Great couple of posts, Dorothy W.! I am with you about the feeling of simpatico when reading about others’ struggles.

    The one time I remember feeling that I couldn’t handle anything “heavy” — including the news and difficult films — I was very burned out on a demanding job. I went and saw Kindergarten Cop and actually thought is was funny. It was then I knew that I had crossed some sort of line; I empathized with other souls who couldn’t handle “heavy,” but that wasn’t me. I left that job soon after.

  6. Sylvia and Stefanie — I’m glad you agree :) Litlove — yes, paradoxical is exactly right; what could possibly be better than literature to capture ambivalence? Danielle, I think reading can evoke all kinds of emotions, positive and negative — I don’t want to sound like a book has never made me sad, it’s just that I can feel something but have some distance from it too. But I know what you mean — some kinds of books I can get emotionally involved in, and only later take a step back and think about it more critically. Emily — your comment made me think of David Sedaris, for some reason, I guess the point about humor and pointing out flaws and absurdities … LK, thanks! It’s interesting how literature and film can tell you something about yourself — such as you need to quit your job!

  7. hepzibah

    I think the “less alone” idea is what I connect with the most — that is exactly how I feel!

    I wish I had you as a teacher! Can you come back to teach? I’m sure you connect with your students and make them see the importance of all that literature has to offer. I think “seeing” is the first step…

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