Do you think about the (relative) happiness or sadness of books when you choose to read them? I’m thinking of this because I recently read Hepzibah’s post in which she describes people telling her to stop reading so many depressing books and to read something happy instead. And reading that post I remember how some of my students voiced mild complaints about the depressing stories I chose for them to read. They wanted something uplifting.
I was surprised when my students said this, because it really hadn’t occurred to me to think about whether what I’ve read or asked my students to read is sad or not. Perhaps what I put on the syllabus is affected by a taste for sad stories I may have (this is a class where I teach students how to write about literature, so I can choose whatever literature I want), although I’ve never thought of myself as having such a taste, but my first response to this complaint is to think that much of really great literature is sad because that’s the way life is, and there’s nothing to be done about it. In fact, I’m guessing that what my students would consider “uplifting,” I’d consider cheesy and overly sentimental, and if I ever feel “uplifted” by literature, it’s when an author has said something bracingly difficult but true about life.
But maybe this has to do with how I read — with the fact that although I get caught up in stories I don’t tend to believe in them or get involved with them to the extent that what I’m reading affects my mood. I rarely feel sad, much less get depressed, when I read a sad book, so to call books depressing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean, reading something beautifully well-written can make me feel happy or reading something shoddy can make me feel irritated, but if I read a story where everybody dies or the marriage breaks up or a character fails to reach her dreams or whatever I’m not bummed for the rest of the day.
But maybe my students are? I do recall treating some of the violence in a Flannery O’Connor story lightly (not that this violence doesn’t carry significant meaning, but she does find humor in it sometimes) when that violence shocked my students. I wanted to tell them … but, but, it’s a story! Don’t take it so seriously! I mean — take it seriously, definitely, but don’t get upset about the violence! No one is actually dying here!
So, am I callous, or are they overly sensitive, or is this an age and experience thing?