While I have a tendency toward melancholy in all my book choices, these are those most likely to turn you into a blubbering puddle; they are some of my favorites and well worth the emotional upheaval they cause.
Really though, these books are sad for a reason; they enlighten readers to the darkness and difficult burdens humans have been forced to bare.
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
This novel about a Holocaust survivor living out his elder years alone an apartment in New York City has so many beautiful, poetic lines that it feels like an ethereal extended dream. My “quote book” includes many of its lovely lines. I refer back to them often.
“Only after they charged him with the crime of silence did Babel discover how many kinds of silence existed. When he heard music, he no longer listened to the notes, but the silences between. When he read a book, he gave himself over to the commas and semicolons, to the space after the period before the capital letter of the next sentence. He discovered the places in the room where silence gathered; the folds of curtain drapes, the deep bowls of family silver. When people spoke to him, he heard less and less of what they said and and more and more of what they were not.”
The World According to Garp, John Irving
Published in the 1970’s this epic novel follows the lives of three generations of family members beginning with the English teacher turned feminist leader Jenny Fields, and eventually resting its focus on her son, Garp, as he lives his tragic and beautiful life as a writer, father and husband with varying degrees of success. This book is hard to describe: it is at times funny, at other points poignant, raw, heartbreaking. I was given this novel years ago by my friend Sam, and I finished it in the middle of the night and cried alone for hours- reader beware (but read it, really).
“You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”
What is the What, David Eggers
Based upon the real life story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, this books falls into the category named by David Egger’s autobiography and first book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I also recommend). It is so good. So sad. So enlightening to the darkness and light humans in terrible circumstances are forced to carry. Eggers is one of my favorite authors, so read this book and all of his others if you like.
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days…I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive and so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”
“This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some other kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book.
“The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
Written from the perspective of a young boy who lost his father when the Twin Towers fell, the language is simple, refreshing, beautiful. Safran Foer is another of my favorite authors; his book Eating Animals sealed my fate as a vegetarian.
“We had everything to say to each other, but no ways to say it.”
“What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.”
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
An epic novel and folk-inspired tale of Macon “Milkman”‘s story of growing up in the African American community as an estranged and troubled character who struggles with his cultural and ethnic identity but seeks spiritual wholeness. I read this book from an assigned list my junior year of high school. Morrison’s writing followed me into college, and the images from this text have lingered in my mind for all the years since.
“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”
“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why.”