by Eric Olsen
Do you ever find yourself feeling a little too happy? Maybe the threat of sequestration, or the prime-time news, or John Boehner haven’t gotten to you? Hey, not to worry. In the books section of the February 21 edition of The Telegraph, out of England, there’s an article by a chap named Martin Chilton about 20 “great depressing reads.”
On the list are such classics as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (at the top of the list), and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (at the bottom). Between these are the likes of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. And please note how cleverly I lumped together the three titles on the list with “heart” in them, since it figures that if you’re looking for depressing, heart would have to factor in one way or another, if not in the title, then the action.
But on the list are, as well, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and of course Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Chilton also includes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I found less depressing than simply awful. But come to think of it, that in itself is depressing, depressing to think how a guy who’s usually hailed as one of America’s greatest living novelists — the lit crit Harold Bloom even pronounced McCarthy our nation’s answer to Shakespeare — could write something that stunk and still get praised for it.
I don’t know how Chilton organized his list. It’s not alphabetical by author or title or publication date, far as I can tell. He may have ranked the books from least to most depressing, or the other way around, but he doesn’t say, and I’m not sure one could rank them in that way in any case. Certainly I don’t think Jude is more or less depressing than Trial. Perhaps, to paraphrase the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which isn’t on Chilton’s list, but could well have been — Anna, after all, tossed herself under a train — happy books are alike; each depressing book is depressing in its own way….
But I digress. Chilton, in fairness, isn’t suggesting that these books are an antidote for irrational spasms of happiness. What writer, after all, is ever really happy? Plenty of research suggests that writers as a cohort suffer from depression at significantly higher rates than the general population, though whether they get depressed because they write, or they write because they get depressed, remains to be seen. No, Chilton suggests these titles as an antidote to depression, as “…a sort of literary electric shock treatment. You think your life is bad? Try 400 volts of pure Thomas Hardy and count your blessings that you’re not Jude The Obscure.”
More to the point, Chilton is proposing his list as an alternative to a list of happy books about to be rolled out by doctors and public libraries around England. Rather than prescribe drugs for this or that mood disorder, or in addition to the meds, some doctors in England will soon be prescribing one or more “mood-boosting” books, to be made available at various local libraries. The list, Chilton tells us, includes titles such as David D. Burns’s The Feeling Good Handbook, as well as books by Bill Bryson, Nancy Mitford and Laurie Lee.
Give me one of the books on Chilton’s list over Burns’s Handbook any day. What good lit isn’t in some way depressing, after all? Indeed, Chilton’s list could probably include 200 titles, or 2,000, not 20. “Great art is distilled from suffering,” writes Chilton, who then goes on to quote some of Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Of course.
Here’s Chilton’s list of 20 great depressing reads. You can find indie booksellers here:
• Thomas Hardy, Jude The Obscure
• Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
• John Steinbeck, Of Mice And Men
• Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
• Cormac McCarthy, The Road
• JM Coetzee, Disgrace
• Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
• Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
• Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
• Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms
• Arthur Koestler, Darkness At Noon
• Graham Greene, The End Of The Affair
• Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
• Joseph Conrad, The Heart Of Darkness
• William Golding, Lord Of The Flies
• Ian McEwan, Atonement
• Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
• Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
• Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
• Franz Kafka, The Trial
What other depressing reads do you think should be on the list?