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A Bittersweet Reading List

In this week's Imprint, Rebecca Howard lists the perfect books for the bittersweet reader.

Earlier this fall, I attended a performance of Hadestown at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. This 2016 musical is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which, as Hermes reminds the audience in the opening number, is a tragedy—“it’s a sad song/but we sing it anyway.”

This lyric resonated with me and seemed to validate my attraction to sad stories. Why, knowing that they are going to break our hearts, do we read them anyway? If you were one of the many theatergoers who loved Hadestown, you may have what author Susan Cain describes as a “bittersweet state of mind.” Chances are your reading choices may come with a side of ugly crying.

Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole is likely to do for those of us with melancholic dispositions what her 2012 book Quiet did for introverts. Cain describes bittersweetness in this way:

Bittersweetness is a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.

A bittersweet state of mind is one that is open to the realities of both pain and hope and can hold these concepts tightly together. There’s even a quiz you can take to determine how much of a bittersweet person you are (spoiler alert—I’m connoisseur level).

What Cain’s book does particularly well is call out our culture’s tendency to avoid discomfort, deny pain, and ignore death. Polite conversation doesn’t leave a lot of room for a discussion of our vulnerability or mortality. But maybe it should.

Cain argues that it is through embracing and exploring these bitter elements of life that we grow into a fuller and more genuine appreciation for the sweet.

So, new dinner party conversation starter: “How’s your existential crisis going?” Too much? Not enough?

A library colleague once described my reading taste as “Bell Jarry.” Perhaps you, too, have noticed that my reading suggestions lean a bit to the sorrowful. Of course, I talk to many people who want to avoid sadness in their reading, and I understand and respect that reading choice for them. However, Cain’s book has allowed me to revel in my own preference for sad—or what I’m now more accurately labeling as “bittersweet”—books.

If you, too, are a connoisseur level of the bittersweet, or you’re just interested in cultivating that mindset, check out some of my very favorite bittersweet novels.

When you read a book, you enter a different world. But the act of reading does more than broaden our world-view; it creates empathy, and nurtures civility.