I was a little surprised when earlier in the year a friend turned down my enthusiastic recommendation to read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. I had loved it, and just gave her a synopsis of the book, mentioning also that at one point I was bawling. She said, “I don’t want to cry.”
The Light Between Oceans, which came out in 2012, is a novel about the young wife of a lighthouse keeper in Australia at the end of WWI. The book describes the isolation of lighthouse keepers and their families and tells the tale of Isabel, who, after a series of miscarriages and a stillbirth, decides to keep a living baby that is washed up onshore one night. As the story goes on, we see up close the love and the negotiating that are required to maintain this kind of secret and to live with this kind of decision. At a later point in the book, the secret becomes at risk of being discovered.
The book is a heart-rending read, especially if you’re a parent. You understand and empathize with Isabel’s hunger to have a child just as well as you can judge and even condemn her for her maddening rationalizations. As one reviewer put it, it is a story about good people making bad decisions.
I, of course, understood why my friend (also a mother) chose not to read this. I have found that many people have certain lines that they find difficult to cross when it comes to reading. I have rarely shied away from heavy content but since becoming a parent, I have so far not been able to pick up books in which the main story line is that of a child dying, regardless of how strongly they come recommended.
I also can’t read books in which there is excessive violence, in particular torture scenes, or stories about genocide. This is unfortunate because I have a strong interest in reading about war and revolutions, stories that capture the human experience of war and revolution. This is the only thing stopping me from reading Laura Hillenbrand’s well received Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Eli Wiesel’s Night, and other memoirs about the Holocaust and Khmer Rouge regime. However, I did read Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, an eloquent and fierce memoir of her captivity during the Cultural Revolution in China. The torture scenes are limited and I am grateful to have read what is one of the most powerful stories I have ever come across.
The lines for me are not steadfast, and I guess for me it depends on degree. I can’t read a story of a child dying but I have chosen to read Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran, a compilation of true stories of mothers who had chosen to give up their daughters under China’s one-child policy. This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. But the stories are not so much about girls being abandoned (and worse) as they are about the incredibly complex forces at play that push a mother to make seemingly impossible and absolutely inhuman decisions, decisions that many end up literally not being able to live with. I chose this book because I wanted to understand and, in the process, I became humbled; I closed the book no longer judging but newly aware of my privilege as an American mother.
And I think that is a major reason I often choose heavier material for my reading pleasure: I want to learn and understand as much as I want to be entertained. I think it is also a function of where I am in my life right now. My son is more independent, my work is manageable, and there is both mental and physical space for me to handle weightier issues. I’m at a place now where I want to deeply think.
Of course, there is only so much heaviness I can take, and so I’ll intersperse my readings with lighter (literally and figuratively) fare (at this point anything under 300 pages is appealing). For example, following The Light Between Oceans, I read – and loved – the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, a satire of upper middle class suburban families. David Sedaris is my go-to writer when I need a laugh and I also love hypnotic psychological thrillers like Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. And then there are always the light non-fiction gap fillers. I went through a phase earlier this year where I was reading how-to’s on decluttering and this past weekend, to take a breather from two hefty novels I am juggling, I took out from the library a small pile of books on…books (My Ideal Bookshelf, The Book That Changed My Life – 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most to Them, etc.). These worked great because they were compilations of short essays and lists. Then, when my brain is really overloaded, I just take a complete no-words break.
What do you find yourself gravitating toward? Are there also certain subjects or types of books that you can’t read?