Friday, October 2, 2009

Top 10 Most Depressing Books

So Abebooks released a list of the top ten most depressing books. Not surprisingly, some of my favorites are on here.

Top 10 most depressing books

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The first time I read this I sobbed for a solid hour after I finished it. I mean, not just “a single tear trickling down” kinda thing, I mean nearly hysterical boo-hooing. And I don’t cry at books. I’m an English major--we’re desensitized and can approach everything from a “critical distance,” blah blah blah. However, I don’t know that I would describe the book as depressing. I actually found the ending extremely hopeful. I think that was why I cried, actually. The final paragraph can be taken a number of different ways. How one interprets it, I think, can reveal much about that reader’s worldview.

2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
I read this in college and really liked it. I think most young females can identify with Esther Greenwood in some way, even if they aren't suicidal.

3. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)
Okay, this one was a little much. I won’t give it away, but what happens is pretty harsh. But, it’s perhaps a welcome departure from 19th century marriage-plot novels.

4. Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell (1949)
This is the book I beat my students over the head with for five semesters, off and on, as Bush was waging his War on Terror and Congress was shredding the Constitution with the Patriot Act. Everyone should read this book. I actually found Brave New World more depressing, since I felt much of it was more realistic.

5. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
I tried to read it but only got about halfway through (which was itself a hefty 600 pages). I just didn’t get the point. Human beings are portrayed as driven by competition and bereft of any sense of morality (which I guess is pretty accurate considering our fallen state). However, there seemed NO possibility of redemption on the horizon (I don’t know since I didn’t finish it. Has ANYONE actually finished this book???) There just wasn’t a lot there to keep me reading.

6. Night by Elie Wiesel (1955)
Haven’t read it but I guess I should, since Oprah said to.

7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
Read it a long time ago, but I don’t know that I would describe it as depressing. Maybe bleak--but look at the setting.

8. On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957)
Haven’t read it. Want to now.

9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
Read this in college and it stunned me. Beautiful and horrific. This is another one everybody should read.

10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Read this when I was ten (my grandmother was horrified) and have loved it ever since.

I’m not sure what I would add to this list, as I don’t tend to think of books in terms of “depressing.” A lot of people think my favorite novel, Wise Blood, is depressing, but if you understand O’Connor’s theology, the ending is actually quite happy, at least for the protagonist. Some people think Faulkner is depressing; I think he’s prophetic. Slaughterhouse Five is pretty bleak, but it’s also funny. If more people had read it, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun would probably be on here. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it myself, but I saw the movie (haha), so you’ll have to ask my husband about it.

I’ve had students ask me why I assign such depressing books in my classes, especially since I don’t seem to be have that “dark” of a personality (at least in class I don’t, apparently). I usually respond that 1) “happy” things just aren’t as interesting, and 2), one of the ways we can identify a text as “literature” (that is, a text that invites study and rumination versus a text read for recreational purposes) is that it plunges us more deeply into the world rather than just taking us out of it momentarily. A book that does this can transform its audience. And because readers tend to be complacent and desensitized, to do that, sometimes you have to shake up your audience. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” From a Christian perspective, I believe that a text that forces us to confront the reality of our fallen estate can draw us that much closer to God, even if that effect is unintentional--for example, if the author is an atheist.

Your thoughts? What would you add to this list? Or perhaps it should be re-named . . .

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