Not all stories have happy endings, and I’m more than okay with that. But sometimes a book has been so depressing that it left me in a dark funk, and no one wants to be triggered into a depression, do they?
The following books are well-written (some considered ‘classics’ even), but I’m warning you to stay away (except for one of them). Of course, I know this list could have the opposite effect on people and they’ll take it as a challenge. “I’m going to read this and not be depressed.”
1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This is the one that I remember the least well. I read it in my early twenties. This is also the first book that I remember ever putting me in a funk. I can’t really recall what happens other than a young woman works for a magazine in New York. It’s partially autobiographical, and if you didn’t know, Sylvia Plath killed herself by sticking her head in an oven a month after The Bell Jar was first published in the UK. So, basically, this novel is a window into the mind of a suicidal person.
I remember liking the book but being left with a cloud over my head for some time after reading it.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a father must guide his son through the dangers and threats of their barren and gloomy environment. Well-written. I was really impressed with McCarthy’s skill as a writer. It was also bleak and depressing as hell—probably why I never read another McCarthy book after that. Even just thinking about this book gives me dark thoughts.
3. The Ideal, Genuine Man by Don Robertson
I was recommended Don Robertson (and specifically The Ideal, Genuine Man) by Stephen King who originally published this book and has sited Robertson as one of his influences. I had to pick it up of course.
I also read this one in my early twenties and haven’t read it since. I remember thinking ‘wow, this is a great book, it should be among the classics’ and then being depressed for about a week after finishing it. The plot is about a man who loses his grip on life and spirals out of control into an inevitable tragedy.
4. The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie by Agota Kristof
I just finished reading these three books (in one volume). I could have finished theme quicker, but I spread them out to dilute the depression if you will. In a nutshell, they are three short novels about war and the effects of war. The depravity and nihilism portrayed in these books even took back this middle-aged, grizzled reader.
The thing is Kristof is a brilliant writer (at least her translators into English make her out to be), but unfortunately, I can’t find any redeeming message in the stories. The third book (The Third Lie) is the least offensive and the most intriguing of the books. However, the first two just left such a bad taste in my mouth and bad feeling in my heart.
I originally picked up this book because a student of mine highly recommended it (I now have to question her taste) and the book was an inspiration for Shigesato Itoi’s game Mother 3.
5. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
A brutal story with brutal characters and brutal language. This is the only soul-devastating book on this list that I recommend. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read and Styron proves himself to be a brilliant writer. The book’s protagonist is a writer (not unlike Styron himself) who meets Sophie and learns about her tragic story. This book deals with the aftermath of World War 2 and even touches on the topic of slavery in the U.S.
Even with all the brutality and depressing topic manner, I came away with a sense of one seeking redemption, if not redemption itself.
If you’re going to read one book on this list, read Sophie’s Choice.