Site icon ELA Brave and True by Marilyn Yung

“Why Do We Read Such Depressing Stuff?!”

Especially in times like these???

My students have told me the following list of nonfiction books is depressing.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam / Public domain

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglas 1840s | Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn

Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel | Photo: World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland / Creative Commons

And I wholeheartedly agree that yes, these books are about terrible atrocities. I mean, look at the subject matter:

And these are just a few books that many students would label as downright depressing. I’m sure several others spring to mind as you’re reading this.

When my students have voiced their concerns over depressing lit, it has usually led to some of the best, deepest discussions we’ve ever had because it gets us talking about life, about learning, about making a difference.

Those discussions usually end with an understanding that while literature can be sad, it can also illuminate cruelties, dangers, and inequities that exist in humanity.

So why do we spend so much time reading literature that is undeniably mournful?

Because most literature, while depressing, still affirms life.

Despite all the horror and despair found in the events that authors have written about, there is an underlying affirmation of life. An event can very much be depressing and sorrowful, but the retelling and analysis of that event through literature can affirm the human experience and the precious gift of life.

You can read about New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, for example, but leave it with an appreciation for the progress in workplace safety that the disaster brought forth. The fire where 146 mostly female immigrant workers perished in a burning building with empty water buckets, a dismantled fire escape, and locked doors eventually resulted in mandatory fire drills, sprinkler systems, improved working conditions, and more.

Those fire alarms on the wall? The Triangle Fire put them there.

So many needed changes resulted from the depressing story of the Triangle Fire. I visited the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in spring 2019. There are two plaques on the corner of the Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911), the location of the fire. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows: On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.

So whether we’re reading about that horrific fire or some other terrible tragedy, there is positive purpose to our reading and we can take comfort in that.

We read depressing literature to proclaim that life is beautiful and to attest that the human experience is worth improving by correcting wrongs, undoing injustices, and striving for better.

Life affirmation is the key.

I just had to get this off my chest because sometimes I question what gets read in the classroom. I’m still planning on having some of my students read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, the landmark novel that spurred changes in the meat-packing industry this upcoming school year. Some students will think it’s depressing, but they also must realize that it affirms life.

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