Must-Read Literature That Hurts

The Hate U GiveHave you ever read a novel you really like, but at the same time found it painful to read? Such is the case with The Hate U Give.

Brief interlude: I appeared once again on the “Tea, Toast & Trivia” show hosted by Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), the great and engaging Canadian podcaster/blogger. We discussed libraries! Link near the end of this post.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give offers a riveting story, superb writing, crackling dialogue, a strong feeling of authenticity, and more. But the 2017 novel — which Ms. Thomas (pictured above) wrote while still in her 20s — is very upsetting because it hinges around a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American teen in the back, killing him. Eerily similar to this month’s tragedy of an actual white Wisconsin cop criminally putting seven bullets into the back of Black dad Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Not an isolated incident, of course, as it’s heartbreakingly, infuriatingly common for racist white American cops to do that sort of thing.

We hear about those incidents often in the news and on social media, so also getting immersed in such a situation in fiction is not easy to take. But it’s necessary — partly because fictional victims of police violence are usually humanized even as real-life media coverage often reduces real-life victims to cardboard caricatures. One of The Hate U Give‘s many strong points is that the story is told from the perspective of its three-dimensional Black characters. Plus the writing and story are steeped in African-American culture (as well as being steeped in the digital age — a lot of texting and social media going on!).

The uncalled-for police murder of Khalil is the novel’s pivotal moment, but the book really focuses on Starr, the teen girl who was with Khalil when he’s shot multiple times. We see her anguished reaction, the community response, the nasty smearing of Khalil’s character, and what Starr does and doesn’t do amid zero interest from the police and other authorities in seeking any kind of punishment for the guilty cop. They want the truth covered up.

Other novels can be painful but important to read for other reasons.

For instance, any novel with American slavery as an element is going to leave any decent person seething and shaken. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Alex Haley’s Roots, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident are just five must-read examples.

Or novels with Holocaust themes such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a graphic novel).

It’s also hard to experience the difficult lives and miserable working conditions of exploited fictional employees — such as the miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal and the characters in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the latter book did lead to some reforms in the meatpacking industry). Two deservedly classic books, and Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece.

Then there are novels in which certain characters suffer from devastating diseases. We read those books because they can be compelling, informative, and inspiring, but they can also be damn depressing. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper

Expand misery to almost an entire society, and you have dystopian or apocalyptic novels that are gripping but exceedingly downbeat. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and so on.

And then there are painful love affairs in fiction. One example is the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque’s mesmerizing A Time to Love and a Time to Die — about a romance between a woman and an on-leave soldier that you just know will end badly.

Heck, Remarque is among the authors who had or have a history of writing melancholy novels, so the reader usually knows something sad’s coming. But if the writers are good enough — and Remarque is fabulous — the books are well worth the time.

Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read?

Here’s the podcast link.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which comedically gives fake origins to local street names — is here.

72 thoughts on “Must-Read Literature That Hurts

  1. I know what you mean. I have read some of these books. Although I don’t read as much as I used to due to being busy drawing and making Art Gowns, baking, etc.
    Anyway, I would mention Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, as one of these books!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa!

      “In Cold Blood ” is definitely riveting/horrifying. (I’m sure it helped that Harper Lee aided her then-friend Truman by doing some of the research for the book.)

      Your artwork and gowns are impressive!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much, Dave! I just listened to the library podcast at TT&T. That was great!
        Well, whomever did the research couldn’t have slept well after that. I think Truman was messed up for the rest of his life after that book.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for listening to that podcast, Resa! Rebecca Budd is an amazing host — smart, well-prepared, great questions, friendly, and a wonderful voice.

          Yes, working on a book like “In Cold Blood” has to haunt a writer after that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Enjoyed it a lot! OMG! there is no cheese in my fridge! 😉
            That is funny, and I like funny.
            I’ve written 2 books. I meant them to be serious, but one came out hilarious, and the other had a kind of a bent humour. I could never take on a subject like In Cold Blood. Just thinking about its existence haunts me.
            However, Handmaid’s Tale is just annoying to me. Never been a fan of Atwood. I do recognize she is an icon of the literary world.
            All this is so interesting!
            Rebecca’s voice is amazing!
            My mind is like a tree, lots of branching! lol

            Liked by 1 person

            • LOL! A bookmark one doesn’t want to leave in a novel TOO long. 🙂

              Interesting that your two books were meant to be serious but ended up funny (in different ways). A person’s subconscious can often be powerful in telling that person what to do. I would also have a tough time writing a book with a grisly theme. I’ve written two books, too — tried to make each of them a combination of serious and funny, and they mostly came out that way, I think/hope.

              I guess we differ on Margaret Atwood. (One of the nice things about discussing literature is having different author favorites or not-favorites. 🙂 ) I actually prefer several of her other novels over “The Handmaid’s Tale” (including “The Robber Bride,” “Alias Grace,” and “Cat’s Eye”), though of course “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Atwood’s most famous social statement.

              A mind with a lot of branches is a great mind!


  2. Then Good Morning Dave, what a complicated world or should I say we live in ?
    No , I have not read Angie Thomas’ The Hate U , there was a movie of the same name showing on HBO.
     The world is full of hate and injustice .
    Then there are so many kind and caring people we never have heard of , they try their best and move on.
     The reality breaks my heart every single day…the President of the US of A.

    This Country is built of immigrants , while the real Americans are pushed aside with neglect .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Dave,

    I’m glad that The Hate U Give worked for you as well as it did for me. I won’t say that I enjoyed it, because there was a lot not to enjoy. I never read blurbs of books and didn’t know very much going in except that it was highly recommended at book club. So I was shocked when Khalil was killed after being established as an important character. I know I’ve said this before, but for me, as a non-American, the most eye opening part of this book is just how every day racism is. I actually thought it was quite a spoiler having Khalil’s murder as part of the blurb (which fortunately, I read after the book) but maybe it was inevitable. Just because he was black.

    My most painful reads are definitely Holocaust books. I actually tend to stay away from them. Having said that, there have been quite a few books set in World War Two that aren’t necessarily painful war books. The book set in Guernsey with the literature and the pie and too many words that I always put in the wrong order and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are two that come to mind.

    But if we’re talking uncomfortable reads, I can’t go past Lolita. I don’t know that it’s must-read as none of us need to learn how to be a paedophile, but of course Nabokov’s writing is superb and I probably saw the (very unreliable) narrator in a different light than I would have if the book had been written by somebody less skillful.

    Sue ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue! Yes, a book can be excellent but not “enjoyable” per se. Yet the “The Hate U Give” was so well done that I can almost say I enjoyed it along with being pained by it.

      Khalil’s killing so early in the novel was indeed a shock. And racism in the U.S. is undoubtedly an everyday occurrence. I think I heard the phrase somewhere that “racism is as American as apple pie.” 😦

      I agree that some war books are more painful than others, depending on the approach taken. It helps when much of the story is centered on the home front rather than smack in the middle of the carnage.

      “Lolita” clearly evokes mixed emotions. It does help when the writing is so good in a novel that makes a reader feel queasy and dirty.


  4. I’ve read such great things about this book, David, and I’m looking forward to reading it. And the same time, I can imagine what you mean by really liking it, “but at the same time found it painful to read.” Such an important topic and about time. Books, even fictional ones, have the power to teach and help change the world. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment, D. Wallace Peach! “The Hate U Give” definitely lives up to expectations — and, as you say, it’s so timely (despite being published three years ago) and so important.

      “Books, even fictional ones, have the power to teach and help change the world” — I absolutely agree! That doesn’t happen as often as readers would like, and plenty of other mediums are competing with books for influence and people’s attention, but books still have some clout. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of the first times of my reading your blog posts that I can say I’ve read most of the titles you mentioned! Perhaps I shall reward myself with a cookie later 🙂 I actually just recently read The Hate U Give for the first time a few weeks back. I found it very moving also, and informative. More than many of my reads on this subject, this novel helped me put on another lens and see the world through a much different perspective. Think it was the writing itself, which felt so human, like she was sitting right there talking to me. Another read you might consider adding is Tommy Orange’s “There, There.” The prologue alone spun my head. The rest is a tragic (but as you say, very necessary) statement on the struggles of the Native American population today.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Ha ha — your cookie quip. 🙂 🙂

      I agree with everything you eloquently said about “The Hate U Give.” There aren’t a huge number of novels that have THAT kind of effect on our perspective. A very emotional and powerful read.

      (I credited you yesterday afternoon as one of the people recommending that book in the first comment way below. 🙂 )

      “There There” is among the novels most prominently on my to-read list!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Howdy, Dave!

    — Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read? —

    Some are born in pain, some live in pain, and some die in pain, but even those unfortunate individuals who fall into all three groups most likely feel a good deal more chipper than the main characters in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (which is almost as excruciating to read as it is to watch Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog”). To the likes of them, 2020 ain’t nothing but a number.

    J.J. McGrath (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      “The Color Purple” is a great addition to any list of excellent/painful novels. Alice Walker is a fantastic writer who doesn’t shy away from depicting ultra-depressing truths about racism, misogyny, and more amid her compelling stories and memorable characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Such an important topic, and belonging to a book club has helped me in this respect, leading me to painful books I may not have chosen. “The Same Sky” by Amanda Eyre Ward comes to mind, about a young girl raising her younger brother in Honduras after her grandmother dies and the horrors she lives through trying to get to the U.S.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I would add Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to your list, the first chapter, “The Battle Royal,” in particular. It still pains me just to think about it. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is another very painful reading experience that comes to mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Liz! Those are two terrific mentions.

      “Invisible Man” is a brilliant novel, but the depiction of racism and other matters makes for an often-ultra-upsetting read.

      And “Johnny Got His Gun” is absolutely devastating. The protagonist’s horrific war injury, and his frustration that the powers that be won’t let him become an anti-war example for the public — basically, the one thing that would give some meaning to his shattered life.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” was a heartwrenching read.

    Not lit,but in my opinion,a must read:Mary niece of vile President,her tell all from highly reputable understanding as his only niece and her clinical psychologist credentials.

    While it hurts thinking as to why we have to suffer with his ineptitude, lies, corruption, etc.related to his politics as well as his upbringing, he was groomed by a father who was deemed a sociopath , detached from his family. A workaholic (unlike DT) who always wore suits,couldn’t relax or have fun,joke etc.(like DT.)

    Thus,Rump’s ego was inflated as a child his mother also not there for comfort,mirroring of emotions, this led to his bullying others as a child as he does now. He was angry to be neglected by his parents as a child.

    Book is a real page turner ,highly revelatory.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Michele! “My Sister’s Keeper” was indeed heart-wrenching.

      I’ve heard good things about Mary Trump’s book — very well-written in addition to offering the satisfaction of Trump once again being exposed, in detail, as the awful person that he is. (Not that that will make any difference with his supporters, most of whom probably won’t read the book anyway.) Glad you’re reading it, or have read it.

      Trump does seem to have come from a family that had something to do with how warped he is psychologically, but I still can’t muster any sympathy for him. That lying jerk is just too cruel, and has done too much damage.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Going to listen to that podcast tomorrow. Rebecca does the most wonderful job that way and it will be marvellous to hear you both together. Another beast of a post. Like Rebecca I think we do need to read these painful books, that authors, in writing them, want to hold a mirror, particularly to those who could certainly do with feeling some empathy. Books like Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List aren’t just there to chronicle the God-awful horror but to try to do their bit to ensure these things never happen again. I’m not a fan of banning books deemed to fall into certain categories, because again these are often representational of the times they were written in and in a very different way they hold a mirror, a marker of how things have changed even when that change isn’t big or fast enough. At least we see the chips in the coal face. And let’s face it, we can always go away and dig out a lighter book after reading a heavy one.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Oh, Dave, so many novels fit this category! The authors and novels which come to mind are everything written by Toni Morrison as well as Louise Erdrich’s novels, especially The Round House and LaRose. It was very difficult reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Russian novels about labor camps and gulags are tough to read but important literature, such as those by Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky. Great theme, the “beautiful and disturbing.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      You’re right — a huge number of novels are both great and painful.

      The Native-American experience in the U.S. is certainly as disturbing as can be in many respects, and Louise Erdrich gets into some of that.

      And — yes! — Russian labor camp and gulag literature. A lot of agony depicted in superbly written books such as Dostoyevsky’s “The House of the Dead” and Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

      Liked by 4 people

  12. Another most excellent, thoughtful post, Dave. Yes, we do need to read these books. Then, we must decide how we will integrate them into our lives for they have influenced our beliefs and value systems. I am grateful for these amazing writers for give us an opening to be in the narrative, to feel the pain, the anguish, the anger. The questions becomes : if “painful” books have inspired us, what is our response? Have we increased our empathy and compassion for others? Have they reinforced our preconceived ideas? Have they increased our belief in the potential to live better lives? I believe these writers want us to look for ways in which to create compassionate communities that foster hope and build resilience. Thank you again for joining me on TTT. I love our conversations, Dave – you continue to inspire me.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother, for your eloquent thoughts and questions!

      Great point — it’s important not only to read painful novels but also important, if possible, to have our future actions affected and informed by those books after we finish them. Compassion and empathy are definitely key words in that respect.

      And thank YOU for inviting me on your wonderful podcast again. You are such an impressive host — your knowledge, your questions, your friendliness, and more!

      Liked by 5 people

      • We are on a journey of discovery, Dave. And I agree – we must give honour to these writers by being guided by their pain to chose kindness, reconciliation, belonging. I admire their courage and determination to make a difference. Reading these books is difficult, but I can only imagine how difficult it is to write them. Again, thank you for another post that asks us to think in new ways.

        Liked by 5 people

  13. We DO need to read books – novels or non fiction – that hurt. I think that we need to understand those who have different experiences than ours, PLUS any ordinary person can find enough empathy or compassion to identify with hurt that others experience.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Carolyn! VERY well said, and I agree.

      Excellent novels (“The Hate U Give” is one of them) can indeed put a reader in someone else’s shoes, and give that reader a feeling of empathy for that someone else. SO important, especially these days.

      Liked by 3 people

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