Rainy day reads: Can your books make you depressed?

Up late last night watching “Salt,” a political thriller starring the impossibly-svelte Angelina Jolie, I felt like someone  stuck toothpicks in my eyelids. I’m not normally one to sit through an R-rated romp filled with terrorism, espionage and cold-blooded murder, but something about the flick enthralled me. Spencer, Dad, Kate and I watched the whole thing until 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday and I didn’t fall asleep. I consider this a major victory.

But then something funny happened.

I couldn’t go to bed.

I’ve noticed something about myself: I have a hard time separating reality from fiction. Whether it’s a movie, music or book, I have to make a conscious choice to focus on happy, upbeat things — like comedies — rather than darker, more serious tomes. Reading books like Room by Emma Donoghue, while compelling, leave me deeply bothered. I actually had a hard time sleeping after finishing that one, too, and you know that’s bad.

Because friends? I can sleep. I can sleep like it’s my full-time job. Anytime, anywhere . . . as long as I have a reasonably comfortable spot or, more awesomely, am in a moving vehicle of some sort, I am out. And I like it.

Many of the books I’ve read recently haven’t exactly been upbeat. Peter Geye’s Safe From The Sea, while fantastic, wasn’t exactly cheery. If anything, in many ways, it was bleak — just like the cold Minnesota landscape in which it was set. I completed the novel feeling so happy to have read it, yes, but my stomach hurt right up until the conclusion. Just like with Room. And Great House. And many other books I’ve finished lately.

Do you find yourself greatly affected by the books you read? If something is sad, are you crying in sympathy? Or, unlike sad-sack me, do you have no trouble completing novels with a difficult subject matter?

My solution moving forward is this: I’m going to shy away from “sad books.” Life isn’t all rainbows, puppy tails and candy corn, I know, but I’m making a serious choice to stay away from things I know will leave me up at night. There are many books that have had me shaking with sobs and yet I was so glad to have read them, but I have to achieve some balance. Like writing, I have to know where my line is.

And Lord knows I need my beauty sleep.

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27 thoughts on “Rainy day reads: Can your books make you depressed?

  1. There are definitely books that I read that leave me lying awake at night, usually because they’ve given me something to think about. Which isn’t a bad thing. I can completely agree with your choice to read “happier” books. I read for pleasure, so you know what? I don’t care if someone thinks that my book choices aren’t “literary” enough. I will also only watch comedy or cartoons before bed. I love my sleep.

    P.S. Have you read “The Weird Sisters” yet? I finished it last night and I think that you would love it.

    • I haven’t read The Weird Sisters, Jonita, but it’s been moved to the top of the TBR stack! I’ve heard such good things. Hope to read it in coming weeks.

  2. To be honest (and to expound) the more gripping the better. When a friend tells me a book is cute and funny, or snappy and clever, I know to steer clear. Anything by Sophie Kinsella and I will have wanted to slit my wrists by the time it’s over.

    I have read some pretty grisling stuff, but I avoid Stephen King. I love Dean Koontz but the guy just freaks me out. I couldn’t read the Lovely Bones. And something about Jodi Picoult, though I love her writing… nearly all of her books involve serious harm to children… I just can’t take that, most times.

    But right now I’m reading Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue about a 14 yr old girl tossed out onto the streets of London after she’s found to be pregnant and I’m eating it up! I loved Room and it didn’t affect me at all.

    I guess it just depends on the story line, for me. And perhaps the psychological aspect of what’s frightening or bothersome to me.

  3. 1. You didn’t think Salt was slightly unrealistic with her jumping from overpass to overpass (oh, and where are those roadsin downtown DC, by the way?).
    2. I had no idea you were a solid sleeper! I looove me a good moving vehicle (be it bus, car, train or airplane) to settle in and take a nap. Great for me, not so great for my traveling partner, lol.

    • Oh, “Salt” was totally unrealistic! Definitely. The entire time we were watching, my dad kept saying, “That street isn’t there! She just ‘jumped’ over a two-mile span!”, etc. But I tried to suspend my disbelief, haha. :)

      Definitely a solid sleeper . . . when logistically possible, I’m out in .57835 seconds. Makes for some annoyed companions!

  4. We just saw Salt as well, and I was probably influenced by the fact that I don’t like Angelina. But it was also predictable. But all the explosions and noise was fun on surround sound. Not much will keep me up. In fact, I actually love a book that disturbs me. It makes me think, it opens new doors, and I figure the author is doing his or her job, unlike all these other books that I forget in a few days.

  5. Yes! Most definitely! I’m a sensitive soul. Often times the things I read haunt my dreams. Therefore, I usually steer clear of sad, melancholy, blood, gore, and too much death. You are SO not alone!

    Us sensitive souls have to watch our hearts and minds :)

  6. In general, I don’t read books or watch movies that are going to make me cry. Now once in a while one will sneak up on me, but I try to stick with it. I don’t like to cry at fiction. I don’t want to get that wrapped up in a sad story. I’ll grant you that I miss out on some great books, but I’m okay with that.

    I am almost finished with Room but haven’t really felt affect by it, maybe because I knew too much about it before I started.

  7. I like variety when I read. When I finished Still Alice, I jumped right into Sophie Kinsella. I haven’t read Room yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
    When I read The Help I was so moved and interested in the characters I never wanted it to end.
    I think to always want happy outcomes you may be missing out on many good books. I do understand about disturbing thoughts though, so maybe you just need to pace yourself.

  8. My problem isn’t that I can’t sleep, but that I end up having these crazy, fantastical dreams where I end up in the story myself and I start talking to all the characters and weird stuff happens. I wake up and think, “WTF was that?”

  9. I have trouble reading sad books – I tend to internalize the gloom and my whole outlook clouds over. With movies I absolutely refuse to watch anything depressing – I watch movies to be entertained, not depressed. I had trouble sleeping after Salt too, but I attributed it to the adrenaline rush – I actually didn’t find it to be a sad movie…

    • No, I’m with you — it wasn’t sad. Just very suspenseful. Stomachache-inducing. And violent! Eek. I’m sure the adrenaline was part of what kept me up, too.

  10. I do like books that get me thinking, whether they are difficult or happy, but it does take me a long time to finish the sadder ones sometimes. In the past I would have abandoned them but because I like to finish the books I start nowadays it just takes longer. I don’t find it affects my mood so much as just reading a lot of bad books though. As long as it’s a good sad book, that’s ok.

  11. Meg, I am the same way with movies and books. I normally try to watch something more upbeat after a tear-jerker and I find myself looking for books that aren’t going to make me bawl or freak me out. Most of my reading is done before bed, so I have to ensure myself that I will be able to sleep. I am an 8+ hour a night kind of girl. Take my sleep and you get a mean zombie. If I do read something that puts me on edge or makes me cry, I normally try to follow up with something fluffy to get back into good graces with my emotions.

  12. It definitely depends on my mood. I recently picked up the chick-lit book HEART OF THE MATTER, expecting an easy & fun read and was disappointed by the (attempted) depth of it and my lack of empathy… but I think a well-written emotional book can be valuable. I read ROOM and was also disturbed by it, but found it to be a very powerful book and I’m glad I read it. I’m reading an advance review copy of THE LONG GOODBYE by Meaghan O’Rourke that is incredibly sad about losing her mother to cancer, but the writing is so compelling that yes, I have to put the book down and walk away at times but it’s worth returning to.

    Julie Klam’s YOU HAD ME AT WOOF is a great happy book (except for chapter 7) and so are the Lisa Lutz novels.

  13. I, like you, can sleep! My poor insomniac husband marvels, and I fail to understand his troubles. But yes, I occasionally read something that keeps me up – although more often it’s something I watched, like as in television or movies. I don’t watch a whole lot of them, which may be why; or maybe it’s just the VISUAL aspect.
    As far as crying and being moved… I think I’m getting sappier. I cry at books all the time these days!
    I support you for wanting to read happier. At least for a while. Cheer yourself up! It can be educating and cathartic to read serious things that are often sad; but you probably read in part to be happy or comfortable or fulfilled in some ways, and there needs to be a bit of, well, happiness in there.

  14. This is exactly the reason I’m constantly in the middle if 7 different books. I will start one because I am in the mood for it and then another and then I go back to the original but then I won’t want to pick up the second for a while because it is so sad and I know if I read it I will be sad, or because I am pissed off and ready to kill someone and the book is too happy. I get completely pulled into the mood of the book and it takes time to let that go after the book is finished.

    You are not the only one that is deeply affected by books, movies and music. I can understand wanting to skip the sad ones for some time.

  15. I am extremely effected by what I read, what I watch, what I hear about. For example, I can not read Stephen King. I’ve tried but the man writes things that scare the crud out of me. And I absolutely do not like being scared. I know that life has its ups and downs and happy along with sad. However, reading is for me and for the most part I choose to read books that make me happy – or at least cheer the characters on as they find themselves in some way. I love my happy endings and that’s what I want – most often – in a book or a movie.

  16. I remember as a teen getting very worked up and melancholy over some of the more depressing books, namely Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I loved the book but I was left sad. I didn’t experience this much in my later years until last year when I read The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee. Just after the first chapter I had to put the book down to catch my breath and compose myself since I was at work reading this. It was a beautiful book but I can only take so much of those more haunting books before they start to seriously affect my day and mood. I’ve wanted to read Room though but I may put it off until after winter when the weather is just a tad bit happier. For now, I need to treat myself with happy things. :)

  17. I am a total sissy. You should hear me read Love that Dog (by Sharon Creech) to my class. I have to totally take breaks and modulate my breathing and even then my students start to look at me funny.
    I avoid scary the most, then sad/depressing. Those types of things have a major impact on my mood. So no Hunger Games trilogy for me, although I’m totally left out of all the buzz and fun.
    Movies are bad too. We watched Girl with the Dragon Tattoo during the daytime because I wouldn’t be able to do it at night, and after starting to watch the Hurt Locker my husband kicked me out of the room and made a new house rule – I am NOT ALLOWED to watch war movies ever again. I tried to argue that I saw Saving Private Ryan in the theater (well before I met him) and survived but he says he has to live with me freaking out, so none on his watch.

  18. Yes, this happens to me with both books and movies. I know what my trigger points are but I don’t necessarily always think its a bad thing. Sometimes I think its good to stir the ‘make me ponder’ side of me. However, its also good to stir the ‘that book is so comforting now I can get a great night sleep’ side too!

  19. oh, i’m definitely with you on this one. actually i was halfway finish with another book that i thought was great but it was such an emotional drain that i had to put it aside and pick up a lighter and more happy book and from then on i haven’t been able to pick up that other book.

  20. I am a naturally over-emotional person so books definitely get me. As do movies. And pretty much anything else. When I see someone else cry, the tears start welling up in my own eyes. I’m not sure that it has ever really prevented me from sleeping though. But sometimes books have followed me into my dreams. So I get where you’re coming from. And it is nice to hear that stories can have such a great effect on you.

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