Dark books that changed my mind

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.

The Deepest Well: healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity

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.

The Winter of Our Discontent

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 Windnot 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.

Fahrenheit 451

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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Jolynn Schmucker
4 years ago

I have read all of these except one. I agree with your thoughts about Gone With the Wind. I didn’t like how the main characters were permitted such moral liberty (paired with childishness to boot) yet the reader is helplessly reeled into admiring them. I think I felt a bit powerless when reading it – my better judgement became cloudy – which is always cause for pause. Jolynn

Esther Yutzy
4 years ago

I love dark books (maybe too much) and Steinbeck is one of my favourite authors with The Winter of our Discontent my favourite of his. And what a coincidence that our book club just finished reading Grapes of Wrath!! We plan to discuss it in our home tonight! I would like to read what you wrote, if I may.
At first I was so horrified by the crassness and animal-like behaviour that I could hardly enjoy the book. But I really like how there were notes of hope and redemption, and could we dare draw a parallel to us as Christians in a depraved world?

4 years ago
Reply to  Esther Yutzy

Yes, to dark books, but only if there is a hopeful glimmer of light. Because that’s the world we live in…dark. Yet, God in his faithfulness is that unchanging light, that all may look too and find hope in. A solid rock that one can stand on even when the storm rages and nothing around us makes sense.

Regina S
4 years ago

There are dark books I would like to read but don’t know if I should like To Kill a Mocking Bird or Les Miserable. I worry about language and sensuality that may be present in some books.

I really would like to read The Hiding Place. We read it in junior high which was interesting since I went to public school.

Shari, we have Fahrenheit 451 in my husband’s collection of paperbacks that he saved from his younger days but I have never read it. I’ve never read Gone With the Wind and the movie was enough for me to say no to the book.

Anyway I will read a dark book only if I know there is a possibility of light at the end.

4 years ago

I’m trying to even think of a classic with a ‘happy ending’ that is something other than just the beginning of couple’s relationship!

4 years ago
Reply to  Lo

I like to read . . . But an reminded, just now after training your posts regarding books, that I really don’t read all that much . . . Maybe someday . . .

4 years ago
Reply to  Aimee Stauffer

. . . But I read ( not train ????) all your posts . . . Does that count? Lol

4 years ago

Not usually a fan of dark books. Resolution in the end helps.
To me Life is hard enough, so reading hopeless dark books is simply not worth my time. Although I love Tolkien’s. They are dark yet such good resolution. It mirrors our life with God. We may endure hard times but the hope of heaven is our foundation.
I must admit though, that some dark books I’ve read have changed the way I see things. And because of the deep ness of them I don’t forget the story.
1984 by George Orwell was one. I only read it once 30 years ago, yet I still think of it.
Same with Farenheit 451.

4 years ago

I used to be able to read more dark books, but have found as I get older, I can’t.

I read Fahrenheit 451 when I was in my 20s, before the Internet took over life and everyone conducted their lives through a screen. Now, I am scared to re-read it since Bradbury’s fantasy has become so eerily true.

Also, I LOVE Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent! He shows so well the small stuff of life, especially middle-aged people – the temptations, the problems. I find the ending heartening enough to justify the darkness.

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