When Books Give You Secondhand Emotions

When I’m watching a TV show, I can pretty confidently say that after I finish the episode, I will probably not still be worried about the character. I may be completely sucked into the story while it’s happening, but I’m unlikely to physically feel the emotions that the character are feeling.

Books are a whole different thing. I’ve noticed over the years that I will begin to feel something—sadness, nervousness, happiness—that on reflection, I can’t place where that emotion is coming from. It doesn’t seem to relate to my current situation at all. That’s when I’ll realize that it’s because the character in the book I’m in the middle of is feeling that way. To be clear: I’m not talking about getting sucked in the story while I’m reading it. This is hours after I’ve put down a book.

It’s also not just that I’m reading a sad book and that makes me sad. It’s not sympathy. It’s like I’ve absorbed the emotions directly. The only way to shake it is to pick up the book and get past that part—or finish it entirely, if the whole book sets a certain mood.

My reading life has suffered a bit from this condition. Some of my favourite books are broody and melancholic, but absorbing that emotion is exhausting. The worst part is that because I find it tiring to read, I spend longer finishing the book, which drags that mood on and on. Even though I’m only reading a few pages of it a day, I’m feeling it for much longer than that. (Happy books I can gobble up quicker, but that also means that bubble is popped sooner.)

This does line up with how I think about the books that I’m reading versus the shows that I’m watching. I may be following a show quite closely, but usually I’m only thinking about it when I’m turning the TV on, or when I’m talking to another fan. When I’m reading a book, it’s like it’s a continuous thread in my life from when I begin it to when I finish it.

Do you remember those teen movies, where whatever book is being studied in English class has some relation to the ongoing plot? I aspire to that in my reading life. The book creates a bit of structure, a linear progression to wrap the sometimes random experiences of my days around. I carry the books I’m reading with me, literally and figuratively.

So it’s no surprise that a character’s emotions would worm their way into my own well being, but it has become an annoyance. It provides an extra nudge, aside from interest in the narrative, to pick up what I’m reading. “You’re leaving me trudging through a frozen tundra!” the character seems to admonish, while I wonder why I’m piling on the blankets today. “Read me out of this!” Sometimes I have to stop in the middle of a battle scene or some other climactic moment—I’ve arrived at my bus stop and have to go to work—and end up with a vague nervousness haunting me all day. Being giddy because of a fictional character’s romantic arc is less unpleasant, but still disconcerting.

Do you get secondhand emotions from reading? Or do I need to dial back the empathy a smidge?

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