In the age of Skype, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook, it is rare enough to disconnect from friends for an hour, let alone lose a friend for good. But letting go of friends is a sad and regular reality for many readers.
I’m getting very close to the end of a book that has been on my bedside table for months. It has been a slog, and I haven’t even really liked it. Yet, I already know that I will feel bereft when I have closed the covers for the final time.
After all, through those many, many pages of Atlas Shrugged, I have come to understand the inner lives of Dagny, Hank and James, better than I know that of some of my friends. And as much as I dislike some of the fictional characters’ traits, I know that I will miss them.
The sadness of finishing a book is variously described as an empty feeling or a book hangover, and likened to a like a break up and, more melodramatically, a death in the family. Numerous memes across the internet depict distraught readers who have just finished a book.
And while I feel a twinge of sadness even finishing a book I haven’t particularly liked, it is far worse to reach the end of a book that I have loved. Author Paul Sweeney believed that the sense of loss on finishing a book was aligned with the quality of a book, when he said:
“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.”
In some ways, it is strange to feel such a strong connection with fictional characters that it is hard to let them go. They are fictional, after all. However, the film ‘Her’ was based on a similar premise. In the movie, the main character falls in love with a computer program which imitates a real person, eventually becoming Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s girlfriend. Despite the initially ridiculous premise, as the story unfolds, the connection between the two becomes more and more believable, giving rise to a sense of genuine sadness when the two eventually part. And we only have to consider the outpouring of grief among Offspring viewers when Patrick died to understand the impact that fictional characters can make on our lives.
Of course, readers can always revisit the books that they enjoyed, and reacquaint themselves with the characters they had known so well. However, this really is no remedy, as readers are not looking to relive what they have already read; they want to know more. What happens next? And even if they choose to reread the book, it will not be like the first time.
This may be why series are so popular, with readers pouncing on the next installment with no small degree of desperation. I remember feeling that way when reading about Anne of Green Gables in my youth. And I was overjoyed when I realised there were follow-ups to What Katy Did, helpfully titled What Kay Did at School and What Katy Did Next.
The sense of sadness of finishing a book tends to be greatest when the reader had invested longer in the world of the characters, or if the book is set in a foreign country or different time. For me, the foreignness increases my immersion, particularly when I have little previous knowledge of the place or time in which the novel is set. In this situation, the writer has created a whole place in which my imagination has lived, and which I stand to lose when I get to the end of the story. Some books I remember feeling particularly low after finishing include A Suitable Boy, A Fine Balance and The Poisonwood Bible. And given the length of Atlas Shrugged, it is unsurprising that I am getting apprehensive about finishing.
One way of postponing, or minimising the sense of loss is by encouraging friends, family or fellow book club members to read the book as well. Then, together, you can talk about the characters as if they were mutual friends and disseminate the story as if it had really happened. It is a singular kind of happiness to obsess about a book with someone who has also found themselves lost within the very same fictional world. However, this is only a temporary and incomplete remedy.
It is not just readers who feel a sense of sadness at finishing a book and letting their characters and stories go; writers also reporting experiencing empty after they have finished writing a book.
Writer Truman Capote suffered considerably in this situation, famously saying, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”
Capote was famous for becoming deeply involved in the lives of those who he wrote about, so there is no wonder that he felt the finality of writing his books so deeply.
Fellow writer Beatrix Potter was not fond of finishing writing a book, either. “I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.”
Perhaps the complete immersion in a different world – sometimes bordering on obsession – that writers undertake is some kind of health risk, with writing considered one of the 10 professions in which people are most likely to experience depression.
For readers, and perhaps writers, too, the only thing that is worse than the sadness of finishing a book is when there is no book to turn to next. Then, the blues are tinged with panic. So, before I say my final goodbyes to Dagny and co, I will ensure that I have another book on my bedside table to make the ending bearable.
And if you see me walking around, looking a bit bereft in the next few weeks, be gentle. I might well be mourning the end of a particularly long book.