In Defense of 'Depressing' Books

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Pistol shots ring out in the barroom nigh Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall. She sees the bartender in a pool of blood, Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!" Here comes the story of the Hurricane, The man the authorities came to blame For somethin' that he never done. Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been The champion of the world. Three bodies lyin' there does Patty see And another man named Bello, movin' around mysteriously. "I didn't do it," he says, and he throws up his hands "I was only robbin' the register, I hope you understand. I saw them leavin'," he says, and he stops "One of us had better call up the cops." And so Patty calls the cops And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin' In the hot New Jersey night. Meanwhile, far away in another part of town Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin' around. Number one contender for the middleweight crown Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road Just like the time before and the time before that. In Paterson that's just the way things go. If you're black you might as well not show up on the street 'Less you wanna draw the heat. Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the cops. Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin' around He said, "I saw two men runnin' out, they looked like middleweights They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates." And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head. Cop said, "Wait a minute, boys, this one's not dead" So they took him to the infirmary And though this man could hardly see They told him that he could identify the guilty men. Four in the mornin' and they haul Rubin in, Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs. The wounded man looks up through his one dyin' eye Says, "Wha'd you bring him in here for? He ain't the guy!" Yes, here's the story of the Hurricane, The man the authorities came to blame For somethin' that he never done. Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been The champion of the world. Four months later, the ghettos are in flame, Rubin's in South America, fightin' for his name While Arthur Dexter Bradley's still in the robbery game And the cops are puttin' the screws to him, lookin' for somebody to blame. "Remember that murder that happened in a bar?" "Remember you said you saw the getaway car?" "You think you'd like to play ball with the law?" "Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin' that night?" "Don't forget that you are white." Arthur Dexter Bradley said, "I'm really not sure." Cops said, "A poor boy like you could use a break We got you for the motel job and we're talkin' to your friend Bello Now you don't wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow. You'll be doin' society a favor. That sonofabitch is brave and gettin' braver. We want to put his ass in stir We want to pin this triple murder on him He ain't no Gentleman Jim." Rubin could take a man out with just one punch But he never did like to talk about it all that much. It's my work, he'd say, and I do it for pay And when it's over I'd just as soon go on my way Up to some paradise Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice And ride a horse along a trail. But then they took him to the jailhouse Where they try to turn a man into a mouse. All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance. The judge made Rubin's witnesses drunkards from the slums To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger. No one doubted that he pulled the trigger. And though they could not produce the gun, The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed And the all-white jury agreed. Rubin Carter was falsely tried. The crime was murder "one," guess who testified? Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride. How can the life of such a man Be in the palm of some fool's hand? To see him obviously framed Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land Where justice is a game. Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell An innocent man in a living hell. That's the story of the Hurricane, But it won't be over till they clear his name And give him back the time he's done. Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been The champion of the world. [Bob Dylan, 1975]

By Laurie Uttich
UCF Forum columnist

As a creative writing instructor who assigns a lot of reading, I have at least a few introductory students each semester who complain about the material. It's not that it's too difficult or too dense. It's that it's too depressing. "Can't we read something happy?" Someone will invariably ask.

And, invariably, I will shake my head and respond, "Unfortunately, it's just going to get worse."

This surprises many of my friends. I'm a glass half-full kind of person -- in fact, I'm just grateful to have a glass and more delighted there's something in it -- but I rarely read feel-good books...and I never assign them.

If students push me for a reason, I point them to a section in my syllabus that quotes author Tobias Wolff who wrote: "I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is 'depressing' because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don't seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; 'witty stories,' in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; 'upbeat' stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We're grown-ups now, we get to stay in the kitchen while the other grown-ups talk."

Yes, we get to stay in the kitchen now, but why I think it's important that we do stay there is something I struggle to articulate. I suppose it comes down to this: I want reading to impact my students in the same way it impacts me. And for me, a "great" book (or essay or poem or short story) goes beyond entertainment and escapism -- although it often accomplishes that, too -- and teaches me something about being human.

It awakens (or reawakens) in me the understanding of what it means to suffer, to love, to fail, to hope, to live, to die. It reminds me of one truth I hold to be absolute: the commonality of the human condition. We all bleed. We are all one. We are not alone.

I recently read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. It's a beautiful, painful book of narrative nonfiction that details the lives of some who live in a makeshift settlement near the Mumbai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels.
Much of it is excruciating to read and I'm haunted by many in the book, especially by Abdul, a young boy who supports his family by selling garbage to recycling companies. I was, of course, already distantly aware of India's extreme poverty and economic inequality, but I was unaware of its complexity and its reach. And, as Boo has said in interviews, "Seeing what's wrong -- seeing it clearly -- seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right."

But, for me, hearing Abdul's story impacted me more than learning about Mumbai. There's a section in the book when Abdul reflects about what sort of lives "count," and I immediately thought about the people we marginalize in the United States. And I worried that I might not be doing enough to ensure those voices are heard. How can I select readings and create assignments for those who may feel marginalized in my own classroom? Are the works I select diverse enough? What am I missing? Who am I missing? What more can I do?

Franz Kafka wrote, "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," and I suppose that's what I want for myself and for my students. I want to read a book that breaks through to something that's dormant within me. I want it to challenge me to see more clearly, to actively seek solutions, to be better, to do better. I want a book that has the potential to change my life in a series of small, important ways.
I want the same for my students. I want the same for all of us.

This isn't to say that enjoying a "beach book" is some sort of character flaw. Of course, it's not.

Sometimes, we need a place where everything ends just the way we want it to. The world can be hard and scary. Sometimes, we need to be lifted; not enlightened. Let a book bring us comfort, if only for just a moment. Eat popcorn now and then. Forget about the broccoli.

But it worries me when this "easy answer" formula becomes a sort of standard for the only kind of books we want to read...especially when it's only what we want our children and students to read.

So often we try to protect young people, but the joke is on us, right? As author Sherman Alexie writes, "There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books -- especially the dark and dangerous ones -- will save them."

Reading the hard stuff can make you ache, but it can also feed you. Even in the slums of Mumbai, Boo's story brims with hope for humanity and inspires us with its tales of resilience. In fact, I can't think of a single "depressing" book I've read or assigned that hasn't encouraged me in some way.

So go ahead: Read a book that's certain to depress you. And then let it shape you.

Laurie Uttich an instructor of creative writing in the English Department. She can be reached at