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I Read a Beautifully Melancholic Book. Here’s the Psychology Behind It.

Last week I wrote about “Are We The Books We Read?” and I wondered whether reading about heart-breaking trauma makes me who I am. It was a fair pondering session, given Cath Crowley’s words, “We are the books we read, the things we love.”

This week I fell in love (again) with a beautifully melancholic book - The White Book by Han Kang.

Why do we enjoy sad books?

This article will focus on uncovering the psychology behind reading melancholic fiction and/or creative non-fiction – are we masochists to the devastation in these books, or is there something deeper on the psychological front? Let’s see.

In a HuffPost article, Laurie Uttich states that ‘depressing’ fiction does this, “It awakens (or reawakens) in me the understanding of what it means to suffer, to love, to fail, to hope, to live, to die. It reminds me of one truth I hold to be absolute: the commonality of the human condition. We all bleed. We are all one. We are not alone.” Later in the article, she quotes Franz Kafka who once wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Also, The Conversation’s article on “Can reading help heal us and process our emotions – or is that just a story we tell ourselves?” quotes Marcel Proust, who wrote that a novelist’s gift can, in an hour to, “set free all kinds of happiness and misfortune which would take years of our ordinary lives to know.”

Furthermore, the article also quotes George Saunders, who, when speaking about said, suggested that “[art might be] an offering of sorts – a hypothesis for both writer and reader to take up and consider together […] the goal of that offering might be to ease the reader’s way; to make the difficulty of this life, less for her. We try to give the reader a way of thinking about the reality that is truthful, yes, and harsh, if need be, but not that gratuitously harsh, a way of thinking that, somehow, helps her.”

So, do we read ‘sad’ and ‘depressing’ fiction to uncover our pain? To shock us awake to the realities of life around us? 

Verywell Mind has some answers:

In their article “Why Do We Like Sad Stories?” there are several reasons why people hungrily consume this type of fiction:

1.| It connects people to real-life emotions – whether they have experienced it or are yet to. 

2.| Sadness can be experienced without anxiety, there is a dissociation or detachment from the ‘self’ – “Our perceptions of a story’s realism are far from the only reason we like sad stories. […] [through research] participants experienced significantly more anxiety when they recalled personal tragedy than they did when they watched tragic shows and movies. 

3.| Consuming sad stories makes people feel more grateful for everything they do have. 

4.| Reading these stories allows you to reflect on what makes life meaningful.

5.| There is a potential for personal growth – this kind of fiction forces the reader to take account of who they are, what they value, and what truly makes life worth living. But also, it gives the reader insight into how to cope with situations on a very real and personal level. 

Here is my review of the haunting beautiful book that changed my perception of ‘sad’ fiction.

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Hogarth Press, 2016)

Much like the veiled image on the cover, Han Kang’s third book is delicately wrapped in memory, nostalgia, and mourning. The White Book is a fragmented meditation on the transience of life and the acceptance of human fragility. It is a novel that compels the reader to return to it again and again; I have read it three times already. Perhaps this stems from Kang’s compulsion to write it: “I felt that yes, I needed to write this book and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like a gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” Perhaps we all are drawn to the paleness of loss. 

The novel is a collection of fragmented thoughts and memories separated into three parts; “I”, “She” and “All Whiteness” which are translated into Hangul, the Korean alphabetic writing system. In the first part, the narrator makes a list of white things, which become chapter titles with memories relating to them: swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves, yulan, white bird, “laughing whitely”, blank paper, white dog, white hair and shroud. Early in the novel, the reader learns of the death of the narrator’s older sister, who died two hours after being born. As a result, these white items are a direct reflection of these thoughts and the allusions to her sister’s death and the aftermath. 

Furthermore, set in Seoul and Warsaw, although these cities are never named, snow plays a significant role. From the chapter “Fist”: “Walking this city’s streets until her calves had grown stiff, she waited. For something of her native language, sentences or even mere scraps of words, to surge swiftly to the tip of her tongue. She thought she might be able to write about snow. In this city, where they say it snows for half the year.” Later, the narrator illustrates the ephemerality of admiration: “When it first begins to fall, people stop what they are doing and turn their attention to the snow. On a bus, they lift their eyes from their laps and gaze out of the window for a time. Once the snow has been soundlessly strewn about, with an equal absence of joy or sorrow, and the street’s erasure is complete, the people turn their faces away, and the blurring streaks are no longer reflected in their eyes.”

Moving effortlessly between the first, second, and third person, the novel dissolves the boundaries between the narrator and her sister, the worlds between the living and the dead. In the chapter, “Boundary”, the narrator allows her sister to live “inside this story”. She writes: “And yet before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that despite everything, the baby was still breathing.” Through these unconventional narratives and vignettes, some two pages long, others as short as two sentences, the reader comes to understand the complexity of mourning the loss of someone you have never met. Therefore, the reader joins Kang on an incomplete journey of memory, creating new realities that could have been part of a life they did not know. 

Kang constantly catches the reader off guard. For instance, in “Handkerchief”, she describes a falling piece of laundry, “A single handkerchief drifted down, slowest of all, finally to the ground. Like a bird with its wings half furled. Like a soul sounding out a place it might alight.” She leaves you wondering whether there are signs of greater significance in everything. 

In “Small white pills”, the narrator wonders how many pills she has taken. “How many hours of pain has she lived through?” The simplicity of the words in this one-paragraph fragment, and the strength of the image of a palmful of tiny white pills surprised me. Kang’s poetic language alters the common act of simply taking pills. Instead, it becomes something just out of your reach, close enough to see the pills, but far enough to frustrate you about the depth of a reality you can’t quite grasp.

“Silence” is a visceral chapter in three lines: “When long days finally come to a close, a time to be quiet is needed. As when, unconsciously in front of a stove, I hold my stiff hands out to the silence, fingers splayed in its scant warmth.” It becomes easy to envision the narrator’s need, amid everything, for quiet and warmth. 

Scattered among the fragments, Kang introduces Korean traditions of mourning. For instance, in “Mourning robes”, we learn that presents of cotton mourning clothes are given to the deceased: “The woman he was to marry had prepared a white cotton skirt and jacket, which I spread out on the rock. In the meadow of long grasses beneath the temple where our mother’s name is chanted after each morning’s sutras. As soon as I held my brother’s lighter to the sleeve, a thread of blue-tinged smoke spiraled up. After which clothes dissolve into the air this way, a spirit will wear them. Do we really believe that?”

Later in the novel, the narrator reflects that if her sister had lived, she would not have: “This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible.” The third part, “All Whiteness”, dedicates its final pages to the newborn that was lost. In “Parting”, we get some sense of closure: “Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t’ die. I open my lips and mutter the words you heard on opening your black eyes, you who were ignorant of language. I press down with all my strength onto the white paper. I believe that no better words of parting can be found. Don’t die. Live.” 

Every fragment in The White Book is written in an unembellished language in its simplest form. Kang ensures that there is no room to hide; from one’s emotions, thoughts, memories, and even spirits. The novel truly feels like it is haunted by an overarching presence in white, perhaps the newborn in the white gown.

Are you drawn to the paleness of loss? I know I am. 


What is the saddest book that you’ve read? And has it stayed with you since?

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