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.