Why Read Sad Books?

by Dr. Lindsey Scholl, Logic School Coordinator

Because of its notoriously sad ending, I have avoided Where the Red Fern Grows my entire life. I didn’t read the book, didn’t watch the movie, and didn’t want to know anything about that red fern. Yet I recently buckled down and read it so I could keep pace with our TCS fifth-graders, who finished the book a few weeks ago.

Sometimes it helps to know that a sad ending is coming. I thought I would be sobbing uncontrollably over the tragic fate of young Billy’s precious dogs, Ol’ Dan and Little Ann. Instead, my eyes glistened a little, but no tears fell.

Why do we put ourselves through this? What reason is there to read sad books? C.S. Lewis has famously argued for the reading of old books to prevent what he calls “chronological snobbery,” but what about those books that leave us crying over dead dogs and broken-hearted boys?

There are several reasons, but I will mention two for now. The first is that such books contain beauty mingled with the sadness. After we’ve dried our tears, we can see the character strengths, loyal relationships, or providential circumstances that make such tragedies palatable. Hamlet, for example, is one of the saddest stories in western civilization, yet it’s not difficult to see beauty in Hamlet’s anguished “To be or not to be” monologue. We also feel penetrating truth as the murderous King Claudius confesses his guilt to God even while planning another murder:  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Stories like Hamlet therefore encourage us to be discerning about the characters’ motivations, and ultimately our own motivations, as well.

The second reason to read a sad book is to remind us of the relationship between life and death. As Christians, we believe in a tangible resurrection of the flesh. Death is not the end. It is not even the worst thing that can happen to us.  Nor was death part of God’s original plan for the world, a fact to which the hunted raccoons in Where the Red Fern Grows will readily attest. Even though many sad books do not intentionally embrace a Christian worldview, they nevertheless subconsciously assent to its truths through their genuine depictions of grief and genuine assertions of hope after grief.

This second reason to read sad books is best explored in a Christian environment. Our TCS fifth graders have the benefit of a Christian teacher to lead them through the issues of grief and loss. Because of the homeschooling days, they also experience the tragedy under the guidance of a loving, mature parent. I cannot conceive of a better environment to learn about the value of tragedy in literature, which is a helpful precursor to coping with tragedy in life.