The Reasons We Cry When We Read

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Kit Steinkellner

Staff Writer

Kit Steinkellner is a playwright, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher. She also writes about books and reading  at Books Are My Boyfriends. Follow her onTwitter: @BooksAreMyBFs

Ruin and RisingI just finished Ruin and Rising, Leigh Bardugo’s last installment in her YA “tsarpunk” Grisha Trilogy, and that last chapter made a MESS out of my face. I didn’t even know I could cry that ugly. If I had been making eye contact with another human being I would have turned that person to stone LIKE A CRYING MEDUSA SO MUCH UGLINESS SO MANY TEARS.

I don’t like crying in real life (because tears are usually precipitated by an event that is, at best, fairly disappointing, and at worst, life-ruining) but I LOVE crying while I’m reading. This is because whenever I cry at the end of a book (or all throughout the book, on every other page if I’m lucky) it’s because the book in question has rocked me to my core and made my cold, dark heart actually FEEL something.

A book that can make me cry is a small miracle. Same with a TV show/movie/tiny play in a blackbox theater somewhere/big Broadway musical. It just doesn’t happen that often. A story has to more than engage me to make me cry, it has to straight up IMMERSE me. I have to be so nose-and-eyeballs deep in the story that I almost mistake the characters’ thoughts and feelings for my own. I don’t ever actually start believe I’m one of the characters. I’m crazy, but I’m not THAT kind of crazy. Still, if I’m crying over a book, it’s because the lines between fantasy and reality have blurred a bit. You don’t cry over something you KNOW is made up. But you can (and I do) cry over something you have, if just for a second, been tricked into believing is real.

I don’t know how some of the books that have made me cry have done it. I mean, yes, it’s because sad things have happened, or heartwarming things have happened, or just emotionally resonant things have happened. But a plot point itself is not a cause for tears. It’s the execution that led up to and paid off that plot point. Would I have cried if a sentence had been missing? Or not cried if an important line of dialogue had been just slightly rephrased? The magic trick of it is such a mysterious thing!

So I don’t cry that much while reading but I am SO excited and grateful for the chance to shed tears all over the page. I want to be transported by a book, I want to be sucked up into the eye of its storm, I want to believe that what I’m reading is almost real. I don’t have to cry in order to love a book. But tears are a sign, for me, that a book has done the job I so badly wanted it to do when I cracked its spine.