Discussion: When The Reading Gets Rough

Part of me feels like this is a daft thing to want to talk about but so often those are the topics that other people are wondering about too so … here goes. Over the past month or so, I have been doing my Greek Mythology Challenge. I chose to do this on the basis that I’ve always enjoyed Greek mythology, I had a fair few Greek myth related books on my TBR and I thought it would be interesting to see what I noticed if I was able to read comparatively. I’ve cleared about seven books from the list and … I need a breather. The reading has got really, really tough. And this got me wondering – does this ever happen to anyone else?

The other night I sat in tears, having just completed The Silence of the Girls. I had finished A Thousand Ships a few days before, making this the second time in one week that I had had to read about the death of Astyanax. When I was fourteen, I read Adele Geras’ Troy. For those unfamiliar with that book, it’s an enjoyable and well-written Young Adult novel set in Troy. One of its main characters is Astyanax’s nursemaid Xanthe. The reader gets to fall in love with Astyanax who is a truly enchanting toddler. When the city falls and he is murdered, I was stunned. I had believed wholeheartedly that a child so loved and happy must surely be saved. Reading of this child’s death again (and then again), particularly at a time when I myself have a child of the same age … it makes me feel a real sorrow. Sorrow for the children who have suffered in wartime and such sorrow for the mothers who have known such hideous loss. But also just sorrow that we have a world that contains men who cannot see that to harm a child is a crime against which the whole earth screams.

Yet I also recognise that this sorrow is one that I have essentially chosen for myself. Nobody forced me to read these books. My partner even asked me why I was making myself read them if they made me so sad. I remember rolling my eyes back in my late teens when a friend remarked that he was feeling very down. Was there anything in particular bothering him? Well, he had watched Schindler’s List six times in five days. And he was surprised that this had made him so sad? We read these books or watch these films because they seem important but … is this giving ourselves sorrow that is heavy to carry in a world already full of burden and care?

A few years ago, I raved about Lincoln in the Bardo and a friend with a young child remarked that she would have loved to read it but she avoided any story about child death now that she was a parent. I was startled at the idea that anything might ever constrict my bookish wanderings but now I am starting to wonder. I used to laugh at how I could mourn a fictional character but in truth, I have now grieved Astyanax for over half my life. The beauty of his child form, the love that he took for granted and the cold brutality with he was dispatched and then the cold-blooded utter cruelty of what was done to his mother after his death. It’s too much. And then there’s that very real chance that his short life was not confined to fiction.

What I’m asking is – do you ever find yourself having to set the book down? Turning away from something not because it is badly written but because it is too true?

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17 thoughts on “Discussion: When The Reading Gets Rough

    1. Yeah – a long, long time ago, I tried reading A Confederacy of Dunces at a time when I was unemployed – couldn’t get on with it as I couldn’t laugh at the chronically unemployed guy when I was in the same situation. I think this time the brutality hit me in a way that I just wasn’t expecting. I loved the drama of Greek mythology but this time I just seem to have been walloped by the cruelty and violence. So good to realise I’m not alone!

  1. I think when you’re invested, sad bits or a depressing mood in books can be a lot. When I re-read my favourites I sometimes only read the happy bits – e.g I’ll always skip the first half of Jane Eyre and the last quarter of Gone with the Wind. And the bits in Harry Potter when Harry and Ron aren’t speaking to each other…

    1. Oh so much of Harry Potter is the adolescent arguments – it’s realistic but it is agonising to reread again and again. You’re so right too about that last bit of Gone with the Wind – made me want to howl too. I think you have to be in a certain mood for these things and I guess being sleep-deprived (emotionally sensitive) with a young child, it’s probably not the best time to be repeatedly reading about the death of a young child. I think I’m going to take a little breather from it all!

  2. This isn’t daft at all, it is something most readers will probably experience in one form or another. A trick I often use if I am reading something which has the potential to become distressing is to read something lighter or emotionally safer at the same time. Sprawling family sagas usually work for me, but I have come across other readers who use vintage crime or comedy in this way. I guess the potential down side of using this method of reading is that one’s over all emotional experiences could become somewhat diluted, but personally, I feel that reading is like anything else in life, and we need to sometimes pace ourselves in order to have a richer, more healthy experience.

    1. Yes – I’m taking a little retreat into children’s literature for a while to recharge before I return to the Greek mythology experiment. I enjoy sprawling family sagas too – have you ever read the Cazalet Chronicles? Again though, I skip the fifth volume.
      I believe in trying to read a diverse range of experiences and to acknowledge the brutal realities of other people’s lives but … oof, this one was just a bit tough and you’re right, pacing myself is healthier.

      1. I read The Light Years last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I’m looking forward to reading the others in the series soon. Thanks for the tip about the last one though, I’ll probably just stop after Casting Off.

  3. YES. Reading heavy material after heavy material will WEIGH YOU DOWN. Definitely take some fluff breaks in between weightier content for the sake of your own mental health. I love a gut wrenching tear jerker of a book, but I wouldn’t want to read that type of book on repeat. Variety is the spice of life. 😉

    1. Thank you! I’m realising that – I really wasn’t expecting my Greek mythology challenge to have such a serious emotional impact on me – I guess I was just naive. Currently re-reading children’s fiction and feeling much improved! 🙂 Thank you again for commenting!

  4. As a general rule, I won’t read books with dogs – they inevitably end up dying in tragic ways, or injured, or having otherwise terrible things happen to them (The Call Of The Wild WRECKED me for weeks!). I don’t know why that bothers me so much, when I have a pretty strong stomach and hard heart for human tragedy, but that’s just the way it is. I also find some contemporary non-fiction really difficult to read, particularly when it’s about ongoing terrible things (e.g., No Friend But The Mountains, a refugee memoir written from Manus Prison), but I generally force myself through because it’s important NOT to look away in those cases. All told, whenever a book gets me down for whatever reason, I make sure to read a light, funny one next, one that will bring my mood back up. That’s the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down 😉 Big hugs! x

    1. Well that’s the big thing – I don’t want to wimp out and ‘look away’, especially when it relates to an experience which was genuinely lived by someone. But yeah, it’s possible that you can read too much about the Trojan war in a short space of time!
      I think right now I need to read less about the deaths of children … thank you – this is very helpful to identify what the sensitive area is so I can move forward. Thank you for the comment and for the internet hugs! 🙂

  5. In some ways, I find that I steer myself away from books that will make me too emotional. I really set myself up to be able to escape into the book with characters that aren’t remotely similar to me or family. I have read several books that have brought me tears of both sadness and joy, but I tend to shy away for many months after because I feel so stressed by reading those stories.

  6. God yes, absolutely. There are some topics that I just can’t read about. I picked up a very acclaimed book recently, knowing it was about Hurricane Katrina, and the first thing I read about flood waters was too, too much for me. And there are times when I can’t handle a certain level of darkness/seriousness across the board, and I have to stick with lighter reading. It happens! I think it extra happens in this time when everything is so wretched, that sometimes we need a break and aren’t able to stomach books that in another time we’d have gotten through with no problem. Sometimes I need books with softer edges.

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