Your reading tastes: heavy or light?

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.”heavy books

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 Xinrana 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?

17 thoughts on “Your reading tastes: heavy or light?

  1. I probably shouldn’t but I’m conscious of my book challenge with goodreads a lot when I pick books. I try to avoid massive books… Especially when I’ve fallen behind!

    I do enjoy a good variation from game of thrones to pretty little liars!
    I’m yet to find my limit but I’m not yet a parent!

  2. Although I get thoroughly depressed, I still seek out articles and stories about the Holocaust. I think it’s because I got very deeply influenced by Anne Frank’s story.

    There are very few books where I’ve actually “enjoyed” crying. The crying has been of the good sort; like cleansing. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult is one such book. Yes, it does have a child dying, but the story is about so much more that just death.

    • Thanks so much for mentioning the Holocaust – that is the one area that I want to read more of and yet it is so hard…we spent a whole semester on the Holocaust in the 6th grade and it was one of the most impactful experiences I’d ever had in school. The older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s become to allow myself back in, but I should try. I would like to re-read The Diary of Anne Frank. I also went back to the blog post and added Elie Wiesel’s Night, a book I’ve been looking at (but haven’t dared pick up) for years…

      I’ve heard a lot about My Sister’s Keeper! I should read it.

  3. I feel the same way you do about extensive violence and, especially, children in danger or children dying (my husband knows that I won’t watch movies that feature “child endangerment” — I just can’t handle it). I read Beloved for a grad school class, and the experience was agonizing; A Gesture Life was difficult to finish, too. I made it through Death Be Not Proud only because I was fifteen at the time, and my little sister (seventeen years younger than I am) hadn’t been born yet.

    There was a period when I didn’t read books with any romantic plot at all, but that’s a story for another time.

    That said, I agree with you that it’s important and instructive to read books that connect us with personal histories of traumatic events; I’m glad that I read Nina’s Journey (about life in Russia between the revolution of 1917 and Yalta) and the Gulag Archipelago. I really ought to expand my nonfiction reading to more accounts about life in Asia and Africa, too.

    When I need a break from the heavy stuff, I read poetry (not that poetry can’t be heavy — but it requires from me a different kind of concentration), and Christopher Moore, and David Sedaris. Loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette? too!

    • I love your comment, Carolyn, and all these book references (which means I will look them up and likely add them to my TR list ;-)). I am fascinated with Russia and would like to read more. If you want to read heavy stuff you can’t go wrong with Asia and Africa. I didn’t mean to talk about 2 books about China in my post but I realized they happen to be 2 of the heaviest books I’ve read. I wonder if anything light comes out of China 😉

      I totally know what you mean about poetry. Do you have any recommendations? I would like to read more poetry.

  4. I am reading The Light Between Oceans right now on the recommendation of my sister! (I’m about halfway through and actually find the story very disturbing because of the ease with which Izzy decides to keep the baby and subsequently continues to lie.)

    I find that my book tastes are eclectic and what I read depends on how I am feeling in general. How tough my workday is will influence what I read, as well as how busy I am with keeping house. The Light Between Oceans is perfect for this week, when work is a little busier. I also really enjoy history books when I have less pressures on my work life and therefore can spend time learning facts and dates. Sometimes, I read a “heavy” book while also reading a lighthearted book (i.e. I am also reading The Execution of Noa P. Singleton right now in small doses every day). There just is never enough time to read everything I want to read and I am pretty much open to reading just about anything.

    • I’m glad you’re reading The Light Between Oceans! Yes, the story is very disturbing…let me know what you think about what the way it ends…I felt it was a bit rushed.

      I totally agree with what you wrote about how your tastes and preferences can change depending on what else is going on in your life on even a day to day basis. I also like the idea of reading both a heavy and light book simultaneously. I think I need to do that. How are you liking The Execution of Noa P. Singleton? I have been meaning to put that on my TR list!

      • I enjoyed The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. I thought it was slow to start but the second half was good because the story picked up quit suddenly. I was pleased with how the author presented a debate on the death penalty without really inciting passions–she just presented the possible conflicts from each character’s POV. I have lingering questions about each character’s motivations in this story, but overall, thought it was a profound read.

        I was disappointed with the ending of The Light Between Oceans. I thought it was rushed too, but am glad that it did not wrap up in such a way that Tom and Izzy avoided all consequences.

  5. I am going to have to check out some of these books you are talking about. I am not a fan of the extreme (i.e. torture, violence, swearing, etc.). I am very much a reader of my moods and make sure I have a variety of books on hand to read. Happy Thursday:)

  6. Books are usually easier for me to take than movies in terms of violence. I haven’t ever had to put down a book because it was too heavy–only books that are poorly written. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t excellent/dark books that still haunt me: The Lovely Bones, for example.

    • Interesting that you should mention movies vs. books, as a friend and I were just having the exact same conversation yesterday. She said the same thing you did about movies being more difficult to take. Oddly enough, I find books more difficult, and I wonder if it is because I am so afraid of my imagination. Also, I tend to close my eyes or walk out of the room during violent scenes in movies. But I agree that movies can be hard because they leave little to the imagination, and you have no control over the images.

      Thank you for mentioning The Lovely Bones…that opening scene really is probably the most haunting one I’ve ever read.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Cecilia

  7. I tend to gravitate toward heavier reads. I think it is because I am interested in memoir writing. I recently read Godwin’s When Crocodile Eats The Sun, Deraniyagala’s Wave, and Strauss’s Half A Life. My book clubs though read lighter material so I’ve been able to enjoy Hiasen’s Bad Monkey and Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

    I wil definitely check out The Light Between Oceans.

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