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Do harrowing books prepare you for the worst or make you fear it?

I heard an interesting TED Talk on resilience recently, delivered by a mother who had lost her 12-year-old daughter in a car accident.

The mother, who happened to be the director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience, said that an understanding that she was not the only person to have endured such an event had helped her cope with her grief.

By recognising that life could be terribly unfair and awful, she became more resilient, even in the face of the worst a parent could endure.

On the other hand, if we expect life to be constantly happy, we are shocked to discover that is not the case, and feel like we have been treated unfairly, or are the only ones to face such hardship.

Listening to this podcast, I began thinking about my love of harrowing books.

I wondered about whether reading about the worst in books could help make me more resilient.

Afterall, having read A Little Life, The Choke, My Absolute Darling, and other devastating novels, it seems impossible not to understand that terrible things can happen.

These books provide readers with real insight into trauma and neglect, often from the perspective of the person suffering.

Sometimes, I think this is why I value reading these books so much. In a way, I feel like I am preparing myself for some inevitable tragedy – and let’s face it, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t experience some grief during their lifetime.

Perhaps these stories of abuse, pain and hardship are working a muscle that I will call on someday when the worst happens, helping the reader deal with our fundamental fear of loss.

However, it might be that the opposite is true. Maybe I am working a muscle that is better off left weak, so that it does not respond to pain with taut strength? When it comes to pain, perhaps you don’t get stronger the more you are exposed, but weaker.

An article published in The Conversation (US edition) in 2020 suggests that this is not the case, and that emotionally challenging novels can in fact help build readers’ resilience.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a university professor and lecturer were concerned about the impact of reading novels such as Mrs Dalloway, with its examination of suicidal tendencies, and itself set just after a global flu pandemic.

However, they concluded that:

“In our research and practice we have found many positive outcomes when we teach difficult texts in university English. Our students appreciate the texts we teach address recognisable real-world problems.”

In many ways, by reading harrowing books in which a character’s pain is writ large, the reader is attempting to cope with the fundamental fear of loss and hoping to better understand the pain of the human condition.

In a School of Life article titled ‘What is literature for?’, it is suggested that reading helps prepare the reader for life, showing them the consequences of their poor decisions.

“Literature speeds up years, it can take us a through a whole life a decade per chapter, in a day, and so lets us study the long-term consequences of decisions that – in our own lives – work themselves out with dangerous slowness. We have a chance to see in accelerated form what can happen when you worry only about art and not so much about money, or only about ambition and not so much about your own children; what happens when you despise ordinary people or are disturbingly concerned with what others think. Literature can help us avert mistakes. All those heroes who commit suicide, those unfortunate demented souls who murder their way out of trouble or the victims who die of loneliness in unfurnished rooms are trying to teach us things. Literature is the very best reality simulator we have, a machine which, like its flight equivalent, allows us safely to experience the most appalling scenarios that it might, in reality, have taken many years and great danger to go through, in the hope that we’ll be ever so slightly less inclined to misunderstand ourselves, swerve blindly into danger – and unleash catastrophes.”

It is true that reading about pain might be a kind of warning to step the other way – do not make the same mistakes as the character who is now suffering the consequence of their decisions.

However, it might also provide the reader with emotional practice for when things do go wrong, and the worst happens.

Recently I read Chloe Hooper’s incredible book, The Arsonist, which tells of some of the awful deaths that occurred during Australia’s Black Saturday fires. I was heartbroken to read of the sadness endured by the families left behind.

There was one particular story, in which a father, who had lost phone contact with his son, received a final message:

“Dad im dead I love u”

My heart goes out to these families who have gone through such sorrow and I can only hope I am never a party to such heartbreak. However, a small part of me hopes that by feeling their pain, I can understand more deeply that suffering is not confined to the unlucky few, but a condition of living.

I only hope that these books provide me with my own strength and understanding at times when my world darkens.

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