One of my favorite aspects of good literature is its ability to change the mind and reshape the perspective. Sometimes, for me, it does so better in the gloom than in the light.
Maybe dark books are an unwise choice for a woman who is walking her way out of grief. Or maybe they are a safe place to know the truth without being undone by it.
Here are a few grim-yet-worthy books that have rattled my boxes and illumined my heart lately, including one title I do *not* recommend.
By Nadine Burke Harris, M.D.
Premise: a) Medical books are not interesting to the layman, b) Childhood trauma occurs most often in poor or underprivileged homes, and c) No one knows what effect that trauma has on its survivors in adulthood, much less how to reverse the effect. FALSE.
Written by a California pediatrician, The Deepest Well investigates how adverse childhood experiences (violence, abuse, neglect, and more) affect adult health. Could it be that these risk factors affect not only long-term mental health, but also long-term physical health, raising the risk of cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, and more? If so, what can be done about the damaging histories so many people share… across all lines of religious, economic, and social privilege?
I hate to call this a “dark book,” because it also contains hope and light. The Deepest Well is probably the most important and perspective-changing book of my year.
By John Steinbeck
Premise: I can’t read Steinbeck,* and the net result of his books is despair. FALSE.
*(I got a few pages into The Grapes of Wrath once before losing interest entirely when Mr. Steinbeck spent a whole paragraph describing how a man’s coat lay over his shoulder.)
With many great authors who are hard to access or understand (even Charles Dickens), I try multiple times on the same book (David Copperfield) before finding one book (Great Expectations) that unlocks the author for me and provides the key to all the other books. So with The Winter of Our Discontent. I loved Ethan Allen Hawley, in his delightful unspoiledness and vulnerability.
At first glance, the works of Steinbeck are horribly bleak. But on closer reading, I found that he creates, like Tolkien (if you will permit another author reference), a dark world in which the small lights shine bright and carry enormous hope and possibility. You see them best against the horror.
After this experience, I found I was able to read The Grapes of Wrath and see, against the entropic disintegration, Steinbeck’s heroes: quietly unbroken people of great courage.
Steinbeck writes with some censorable elements: language, and an unruffled acceptance of human body functions and desires.
Gone With the Wind – not recommended
By Margaret Mitchell
Premise: Classics are worth reading. NOT NECESSARILY. Grin.
The best I can say for Margaret Mitchell is that she created memorable characters.
I have tried to read this American classic many times, and have been turned away over and over by its thick sensuality (never as overt as every page promises). I finally forced my way through it as an educational exercise. When I found myself caring too much about Wade, poor motherless child, or Rhett, god of all men, I put it away for a week or two.
I found the book profoundly false in every way – and not because I object to dark books, as you can see. If you love it, I apologize. But I am firm in my opinion that it is the mistaken fantasy of a weak mind. Nothing in it is true to anything; it is not even true to itself.
By Ray Bradbury
Premise: For the characters in dystopias, there is no hope of real escape. I was never happier to be proved wrong.
Guy Montag lives in the future, a fireman who burns books for a living. When he meets two people who don’t fit the mold into which all people fit, his questions begin to unravel his world.
I’ve read my share of dystopias. This one I stumbled on. Where was it, all these years? If I had known it was a dystopia, and about firemen, I might have thought twice before reading. But it was the first I’ve read that created, if not a satisfying ending, at least a way for heroes to subvert “the system” while a culture burns.
Fahrenheit carries important lessons for our time, truths so pivotal I found myself wanting to quote them everywhere – except they weren’t quotable. You had to have been there.
So tell me honestly. Do you like dark books? Does light at the end help?
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