Books have mood-enhancing qualities, and some are fully mood-altering substances. Sometimes you want a book that will give you a good cathartic sob. Sometimes you really want to laugh or be terrified. Still other times, you need something milder. Sometimes you need the literary equivalent of a single cup of green tea in a world trying to serve up giant lattes with four shots of espresso. And maybe I can help.
Perhaps you’re in a season of grief or are generally doing some soul-searching. Life is big and weird, beautiful but frequently sad. But you’re still interested in feeling something. You’re not looking for the distraction a cozier book might provide. A book that is in its own feelings might help you sort out yours. I really appreciate these kinds of books, because they tend to be the ones that linger in the mind, probably because they helped solidify a feeling I couldn’t quite grasp on my own.
Here is a selection of books, including fiction, nonfiction, essays, comics, and poetry, that have a quiet sadness to them. None of these made me fully sob, but take care to note the topics if any of them are especially raw for you.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
I don’t know what it is about Hanif Abdurraqib’s writing, but even when his subject is something that brings great joy, there is often still a thread of melancholy. To be clear: in a beautiful way, not a bummer way. He writes with a poet’s care for words but also a true fan’s sincerity. These essays touch on pop culture, politics, and personal history, weaving all together in an intricate tapestry whose minute details you can get lost in.
The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
If you want a book that quietly explores beauty, this one’s for you. The novel is set with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 as a backdrop. Stephen is a young man with tuberculosis. He travels from Hong Kong to coastal Japan to recuperate, where he is cared for by Matsu. In observing Matsu’s relationship with Sachi, a woman with leprosy, Stephen learns about love and loss. You’ll appreciate a chance to think about the big things in life in the tranquil and therapeutic setting of Matsu’s garden.
Building Stories by Chris Ware
No one does loneliness like Chris Ware. This audacious book is told through an assemblage of materials that look like other texts, like Little Golden Books, pamphlets, and newspapers. There’s no intended start or finish to the book, but on the whole, it relates the stories of people who live in a Chicago apartment building. Chris Ware’s meticulous nature is evident in all the details. And while the stories in the book are mostly sad and lonely, there is also something quietly joyful in handling all the materials in this collection.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
This book is kind of a three-for-one deal. It’s definitely a grief memoir about the author losing her father. It also dives deeply into the practice of falconry, the details of which were so fascinating to me. On top of that, the book also includes a biography of author T.H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. I appreciated this braiding of topics, the honesty of the grief, and the way the author resists anthropomorphizing her animal subjects.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Maybe this book was on a high school reading list of yours, and it’s time to revisit it. You might be astonished at this rich exploration of loneliness if it didn’t strike you when you’d first read it. It’s a book that follows the events in a small Georgia town in the 1930s through the eyes of characters like John Singer, who is deaf and nonspeaking, and teen girl Mick Kelly, who’s loosely based on McCullers herself. The weird thing about this book is that it’s about alienation, but it’s also a very inviting text.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
So this book doesn’t need me to recommend it; Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and this book is a modern classic. In case you haven’t read it, the book follows an English butler in postwar Britain, when the whole institution of country houses with huge staff is fading. Mr. Stevens is the butler to a nouveau-riche American guy. You might expect Stevens to have contempt for someone who doesn’t know all the rules, but the restrained narration would never allow such a disrespectful thought to bubble to the surface. Still, Stevens does grapple with his life’s meaning, his choices, and what his sense of duty has truly meant.
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
How about some nonfiction to really drill down on what bittersweet feelings are? This is not a heady academic book on the psychology of loss. It is, however, a book that will invite you to contemplate the role of sorrow in your own life. If you’re someone who is comfortable letting the sad and the beautiful sit side by side, you will probably relate to this book. It even comes with a playlist if you’re someone who can’t resist sad songs.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
This book haunts me. The author was dealing with a mysterious and debilitating illness that left her incredibly isolated. During that time, a wild snail that hitched a ride on a plant comes into her life. She becomes fascinated with the snail, and witnessing the way it lives helped her continue to live. The author writes with incredible clarity about her own reality and with remarkable curiosity about the life of the snail.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
This novel in verse is a book I continue to come back to year after year because it strikes me differently every time I read it. It’s the coming of age of a boy named Geryon, who is also a winged monster. Anne Carson, the poet/translator/classicist, has created a rich and tragic story out of a minor mythological figure, one who is slain as one of Herakles’s (AKA Hercules’s) trials. It’s sad but also delightful, expansive but simple, and very singular in this vast world of books.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Like so many of the books on this list, simply naming the premise kind of misses the point. This book is about a Black queer man from Alabama pursuing a biochemistry PhD at a Midwestern university. But it’s a character study of loneliness, a portrait of the way the past insists on itself in the present, and a subtle novel about desire. If you have complicated feelings about academia, this is a good one to read.
For more books that are sad and thought-provoking, have a look at some more of our lists: