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The Allure of Sad Books

Comedy and tragedy: every story ever told falls into one of these categories. Simply put, every story is generally sad or happy, hopeless or hopeful. One may tend to think that the majority of people want to see something happy rather than sad. After all, people are constantly complaining about the bad things in life. Why would anyone want their entertainment to be sad as well?

Consider the recent book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. We knew what we were getting into when we began reading that book. The whole premise is based on a dying girl who fell in love with a boy with a gigantic heart (figuratively), who also has cancer. There’s no way the book isn’t heart-wrenching, but millions turned out to read the book anyway.

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Still the question is, why? Why do we read it? Maybe it is because we all feel a sense of despair at some level. Everybody knows the feeling of either pain, loss, or failure. When those emotions are conveyed to us by a writer, we are able to confront these emotions with somebody other than ourselves. At least that’s how Cinema Therapy explains why we choose to watch sad movies, and it makes sense for literature as well. 

In an article discussing ‘Why We Are Drawn to Sad Movies’, Psych Central talks about this phenomenon on a more scientific level. Sad stories “are renowned for producing stress chemicals in our bodies. Catharsis is an antidote to these chemicals.” In a sense, stories are like emotional roller coasters. First we are given a sense of dread, then the conflict is resolved. Sometimes however characters die in the process, or a love is lost.

Another article from PsychCentral argues that sad stories can make us appreciate the people in our lives more. Their study shows that, “People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life.”

I will never forget, back when I was about 12 years old I read a book series called Redwall. I must have read about 8 or 9 of the books, yet there is only one scene I can remember vividly. Two characters were carrying a baby through the woods to deliver him to his mother. While on the way they were ambushed, and they were certainly doomed to die. One of the travelers took out a small dagger and gave it to the child and told him to fight till his last breath.

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That moment has been seared into my memory, and most likely that was the most tragic event in the entire series. I don’t remember the laughs, I don’t remember the accomplishments of the protagonist. I remember that single tragic moment, when hope was lost, and a child was forced to fight for his life. This is the power of sad stories, I cannot say why it is, it just is.  

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