When I was a kid my first favourite book was Where the Red Fern Grows – a tragic tale about a boy and his two faithful dogs. I remember sobbing dramatically throughout the whole ending and from that moment I was hooked. I loved every sad book I could find – The Yearling, Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting, the list goes on. I even remember the particularly heart-wrenching moment when a favourite character in Mossflower died. The fact that the character later turned out to have survived did not put a damper on the delicious despair I’d felt earlier. While I haven’t grown into a constant tear-jerker reading adult, I have found that, to this day, I continue to enjoy the sad portions of books and that many of my guilty-pleasure television shows are also ones that make me tearful.
But why do people like me love books that make us sad? The Greeks would say it’s because of catharsis and I’ll admit that there’s a definite sense of emotional release after a period of book-induced weeping. But I think there’s more to it, that sadness is only one side of the coin. The truth, at least for me, is that I enjoy any book that makes me feel a strong emotion; whether sadness, anger and fear, or joy, laughter and happiness. The ability to evoke a strong emotion means that a book has truly captured me — that I believe in the characters’ lives enough to feel their pain or pleasure as, at least in some small way, my own. It’s a feeling of enthralment that exists equally in the devastating narrative moments, (the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann) and the blissful ones (Lizzy admitting her love for Darcy). As with so many other things in fiction, it all boils down to empathy – whether laughing or crying, good fiction helps us experience scenarios we may never encounter in our real lives. It allows us to find ways to realise the emotions that are dormant within us and to understand other people in revealing new ways. Books are the mouthful of madeleine that opens us to ourselves as humans, every memory, every moment not yet lived, evoked through lines of black type on a crisp white page.