On Taking an Emotional Break from Intense Books

I have a superpower, and it’s not a fun one. My superpower is empathy, which I have been gifted way too much of.

Here’s a scenario: Me, on the subway, reading my book and minding my own business. Me, seeing someone across from me perched on the edge of her industrial plastic subway seat, reading as well, only she’s crying (from something she’s reading in her book, I gather). End result: me crying too, because if I see someone crying I can’t help but cry too.

This overly-developed empathy curse requires me to organize my reading list accordingly. Too many intense books in a row is not a good look for me. I have a hard time sleeping. My dreams include the more disturbing plots and characters from my current book. I text all my friends at absurd hours of the night to see who else has read the book (if no one has I beg them to get a copy and read it as soon as possible so I can process it with them).

My reading list varies, but the general theme is that I love intense books because they make me think and see the world in a different way, but I also need the lighter, less emotionally turbulent books so my battered empathy superpower can recover.

Here’s an example of my reading list, taken from the past two weeks.

A Little Life by Hanya YanagiharaI read Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life, which was one of the best books I’ve ever read. But…my soul was a little destroyed after finishing it. About three-fourths of the way through, a pile of soggy Kleenex grew on my bedside table as I wept over the massive hardcover. My husband looked over at me and murmured, “Are you sure you want to finish that?” I blew my nose and nodded, because I couldn’t speak. Then I cried myself to sleep.

After finishing A Little Life, I needed to recover my emotional balance in a serious way. I picked up Grace Lin’s middle grade book, Dumpling Days, a story based on the author’s first visit to Taiwan as a child. Filled with hilarious stories, sibling squabbles, tender illustrations, cultural confusion, and an endearing obsession with dumplings, this was a sweet, quick, and light-hearted read.

The Amazing Hamweenie by Patty BowmanHowever, Dumpling Days was not enough for me to fully recover. So I spent another day reading lots of picture books out loud to my kids, the best one being The Amazing Hamweenie by Patty Bowman. That is one incredible picture book. In fact, my younger daughter loved it so much she declared that when she has a baby she is going to name him The Amazing Hamweenie. Now we wait for a copy of the sequel, The Amazing Hamweenie Escapes, to arrive at our local library.

I felt strong enough to pick up a more intense read, which turned out to be Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky. This is a memoir of musician, music teacher, and orchestra conductor “Mr. K,” who was Joanne’s viola teacher and Melanie’s father and violin teacher. Mr. K’s story is inspiring, but his story was tragic in so many ways, from his childhood growing up in Nazi Germany to his wife’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis to his younger daughter’s disappearance. The book had me telling Mr. K’s story to all my friends, followed by, “Can you believe this is a real story?”

The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin and Raina TelgemeierI followed up Strings Attached with something lighter: Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel edition of The Baby-Sitter’s Club. First, a disclaimer: I was completely obsessed with the original series when I was in elementary and middle school. I had every book, plus all the Super Specials. I wasn’t sure how I would feel reading the graphic novel edition — my imagination had envisioned Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacy so specifically in my mind — but Raina Telgemeier did miraculous work with the characters and the plots. I can tell she loved this series as much as I did (if possible).

I finished up the week with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time and finally grabbed it off the shelf at my favorite library. Atwood’s writing is magnificent — not a word is wasted. This book was also one of the most frightening dystopian novels I have ever read. Move aside The Hunger Games and Station Eleven. This book had me puzzling over it for days, and I drove my husband batty as I talked about it at every mealtime for forty-eight hours.

Next up: a lighter read. Any suggestions?

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