3.05.2010

In Defense of Happiness

Having been generally grouchy lately (special apologies to Ms Nymeth, Ms Debi, and Amanda on that one...) I have noticed myself falling at times into an old trap - glamorising misery. It's a classic trick, as old as Greek Tragedy (and older), the tendency to believe that sorrow is greater than joy, that misery is a more real and powerful feeling than ecstasy.

Heck with that!

Happiness can be meaningful - I feel silly even having to SAY that. Happiness has it's gradations and variations, it's intensities and mysteries, it's secrets and ceremonies, just like sorrow. And sometimes, I think it's hard (especially for snotty nosed snob jerks like me) to remember that. So, here's a quick list of five books that are filled with happy, and pregnant with beauty and meaning, all at the same time:

1) Silas Marner - There are those who call this book saccharine, and it has been imitated so many times it's easy to read past. But Silas Marner has a gentle joy that suffuses it, even through a drug addled mother dying, a burglary, and an angsty secret. The book is beautiful because it accepts the sorrows of the world, accepts that there's no God waving his happy stick and making them all better, and nonetheless, in the end, shows how beautiful and joyous life really is. No book tells the healing and sanctifying power of love quite like Silas Marner.

2) Better Angel - I just read this book recently. It was written in 1931, and tells a very frank tale of what it was like to be a homosexual in the 20's. I honestly read this book fully expecting it to be a downer, and character after character was introduced that I fully expected to end up lettign me down. But Better Angel is filled with a passion and honest affection for romantic love that lets the author redeem men with sincerity and feeling. The scene in the book where the protagonist tells his best female friend (who's in love with him) that he's gay was one of the most bittersweet, but frankly love-infused moments of reading I've experienced in a long time.

3) The Arrival - Ms Nymeth just reviewed this recently, but in case you missed it, The Arrival is a graphic novel with no words, that tells a fantastical tale about emigration and immigration. The world Tan builds is a pitch perfect mixture of terrifying and exciting exoticism, where everything you meet has an equal chance of being filled with danger or filled with compassion and hope. And in the middle of the world is human beings who, through their mistakes, love each other, care for each other, take care of each other, in spite of the instinct for self-preservation. And by the end, you see some of the terrifying newness of the beginning transform almost magically into symbols of hope and joy. This is the most joyful book I read last year, I think.


4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Another coming of age story, and ironically another story of immigrant life, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book that loves everyone. CArrying all the stock characters and situations of the worst of tragedies: drunken father, crushing poverty, gender discrimination, racial discrimination, childhood in the shadow of hopelessness - this book manages, by sheer force of will, to refuse to pity itself for even the shortest of seconds. And in the process, you learn what it is to love characters, even the ones you would normally hate, unconditionally and completely.


5) Emily Dickinson - When I told Amanda the books I was thinking of putting on the list, I mentioned Emily Dickinson and she looked at me funny. Yes, Dickinson wrote about Death. But she also wrote some of the happiest, most soothing and gently courageous poems in the history of mankind. She also had a wicked, winking sense of humor, and a cheerful unvarnished affection for beautiful things. If you've only read the ones they give you in school, try Emily again - it's where I turn when I need to cheer up.

So! I feel better! Do you have any favorite books that show how powerful joy can be? Feel free to leave them in the comments - or make your own list if you like. It's so easy to create this false dichotomy between Happy Books and Important Books. But, to be blind to joy in the world is just as crippling as to be blind to sorrow - and just as unfair and productive of injustice to those around you, really.

14 comments:

claire said...

Love love love Silas Marner. Have read it three times (all before I was around thirteen, and then afterwards lost my copy).

Also think Emily D wrote happy poems.

So I was going through the list of fave books/authors in my head, and realized almost all of the ones stuck to me are sad/lonely/tragic. Even the funniest ones are also tragic (e.g. what I just finished, Everything is Illuminated; which, by the way, if you haven't read, you should. You sound a bit like him.)

Anyway, the only happy ones I can come up with at the moment: Jane Austen. And William Goldman's The Princess Bride (comfort read).

Emily said...

Hell yeah, you tell 'em, Jason! (Or, as the case may be: you tell yourself!)

I may be crazy, but I find Mrs. Dalloway to communicate joy more beautifully than most other books I've read. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is so bone-deep with feeling and at the same time gentle in its evocation of a an aging father's love for his young wife and and son. Their Eyes Were Watching God is amazingly love-suffused, as you so beautifully put it, even though it has its harsh parts and its tragic parts too. I'll continue to think; thanks for sparking something in my head. :-)

Amanda said...

I didn't look at you funny for Emily, I looked at you funny for Silas Marner! I found that book really depressing. Then again, you looked at me funny when I suggested Jane Eyre, which to me is the epitome of hopeful. I thought we came up with another one when we were talking last night? But now I can't remember. Stupid cold...

Amy said...

I'd have to second Mrs. Dalloway, and add To The Lighthouse. Of more contemporary pieces, Dear American Airlines and Let The Great World Spin both struck me as novels that were, in spite of being full of tragedy and disharmony, ultimately about coming to grips with your life and finding happiness where you can.

Frances said...

Oh yes! to Emily D's embrace of happiness. In all the small moments, the glorious details of the physical world. I think that is a great choice.

When I think Happy I always think sappily and predictably of love. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (complete with unhappy moments) I find transcendent. And whenever I need a shot of happiness, I watch the movie Love Actually. Love as not sacharine, not without its difficulties but always worth it. All you need is love.

Nymeth said...

Jason, I know you probably know this, but I just wanted to say again that I never thought you glamorised misery. I still remember your review of Orlando :P And many other things you've written/said.

As for joyful books: Anne of Green Gables and The Blue Castle both made me feel such joy. The first because of Anne herself, because of how she sees the world. The second because it was wonderful to see a character decide to live and then stick to that decision no matter what others thought of her. And on a similar note, there's Daddy-Long-Legs.

Another recent read: Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay. It's not necessarily that the story is happy, but it's written with such tenderness and kindness that it filled me with joy.

Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, which is probably the happiest of her books. A lot of sad things happen in it, but at the same time, it's such a triumphant novel - so full of life.

Trisha said...

My most recent 'happy' read was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I wanted to dive into that world and have those people as my friends. And of course Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy just always makes me smile.

Caniad said...

Well, Wodehouse certainly makes me laugh, but really great literature like Dante's Inferno make me glad to be alive, even if the story told doesn't seem like a happy one in the immediate sense.

As for poetry, Dickinson will always have my first vote as well. Such purity of expression.

Jason Gignac said...

First, to the several people who mentioned it, I am SO glad other people think Ms D wrote happy poems :). She gets a bad rap in high school :).

Ms Claire - I love Silas Marner, I'm so glad you like it! It is very easy to find sad, heartbreaking books, and it takes more effort to find happy ones (at least for me), which is kind of sad, when you consider it. I have never read Princess Bride (though like most Americans, I've seen the movie :D ). I have not read Everything is Illuminated, isn't it the same person who wrote the Eating Animals book? I know aboslutely nothing about - I'm a terrible ignorant about anything published in the last 50 years or so...

Ms Emily - *smacks himself, repeatedly, repeating Read something happy, you nitwit!* I've never read Gilead, what is it about? Ms Hurston I've also never read, but Amanda recommended the heck out of it, and I will definitely read it at some point...

Amanda - Its not that Jane Eyre isn't hopeful, just... for me when I remember it, I think of some of the less 'hopeful' parts - the Red Room, for instance, and the struggle with St John, and the fire. The other Happy book, I know *I* mentioned O Henry, but I know you don't like him...

Ms Amy - Hurrah! To the Lighthouse forever!

Ms Frances - Amanda and I just watched 'Love, Actually' last year (Amanda LURVES the Rickman!). I think the Brits need to elect Hugh Grant Prime Minister, he'd be much more fun than Gordon Brown. I need to watch it again, because I remember wanting to see it again (we rented it) and cogitating about it for several nights, but now when I look back, I'm afraid my first memory is of the fellow who goes to the states and ends up with the three lonely roommates...

Ms Nymeth - Oh, I KNOW you didn't! I was just apologizing for being all obnoxious and blubbery on you earlier this week. You were a perfect gentlewoman about the whole business :). HURRAH FOR ANNE! I have Daddy Long Legs on my bottom shelf (found it at a library sale) patiently waiting for me, I need to go grab it soon... I haven't read tipping the velvet yet, either, but can't wait :).

Ms Trisha - Douglas Adams! Hurrah! I still don't know how I feel about them having whats-his-name write an 'official' sequel. Hrm...

Ms Caniad - I've never read a PG Wodehouse book, not ever, but I know this is a fault not a virtue... as for Ms Dickinson, yes - she has the wonderful property of being a perfect choice for almost any deeply felt moment in life: good, bad, silly, pensive, playful, angry, forgiving...

Trisha said...

I have not decided whether or not to read the latest installment either. I do not believe it's possible for it to be as wondrous as Adams' work, and yet I am infinitely curious about it.

Debi said...

No apologies necessary, you silly, silly boy!

The first book that popped to my mind was Dangerous Angels. Which, of course, is really five books, and you certainly don't need to read them all together to get any of them. But there is something about them in their totality that just fills me with joy. Yeah, there's so much sadness in them...but that's part of life, right? And that's ultimately what I took from these...a celebration of life. So while my heart broke a hundred times, it grew in the process.

nicole said...

This is a truly perfect one-paragraph description of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and of why it is so happy and serious.

I also like that you point to Greek tragedy at the beginning of your post, because certainly this downgrading of happiness/comedy to lower-class status is rampant in drama as well as in books. Gotta make a sad, serious movie to win that Oscar...

Jeanne said...

The Lord of the Rings is full of more joy than any other book I've ever read...not only does good defeat evil, but there are about three happy endings (as anyone who's seen the movie knows).

Nishant said...

The Great World Spin both struck me as novels that were, in spite of being full of tragedy and disharmony, ultimately about coming to grips with your life and finding happiness where you can.
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