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The Most Depressing Books Ever

sophies choice

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Not too long ago we talked about the saddest books out there. But books that make us sad are not necessarily the most depressing books. There are pleasure to be had in melancholy, and when you pick up a book like The Notebook, it is billed as sad but you know that it’s also going to have a very sweet ending that ultimately makes you feel pretty good, unless you’re like me and it actually just made you cringe at just how sweet it got.

No, depressing books are books where you close the cover and just kind go…uhhhhhhhhh. Books that don’t hold your hand or make any pretense of helping you to have a better day.

I assume that there are things that depress you. They might not be the things that depress me, so as you look at this list, don’t take it as a suggestion that they aren’t worth reading or that there is no enjoyment to be had in them. Just not for me. It doesn’t mean the writing can’t be beautiful or the characters well-conceived. It just means that at the time I read them they didn’t do anything but deflate me.

  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • I made it halfway through A Child Called It before deciding I couldn’t handle it
  • Sophies’ Choice by William Styron
  • House of Stairs by William Sleator (I eventually came to love this story)
  • The Little Match Girl, a fairy tale I first read from Hans Christian Anderson
  • Most of Thomas Hardy’s work
  • Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Agree? Disagree? Anything to add? Are you desperate to go try all of these?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David February 2, 2011, 12:50 am

    Can totally agree with the Orwell’s. But also this is their purpose, he wanted them to be depressing. And they are more topical then ever.

    • David February 2, 2011, 5:40 am

      Sorry for my bad english, I’m not a native speaker.

  • Cat February 2, 2011, 5:44 am

    Hi Josh,

    I was wondering if you had read ‘Love Life’ by Ray Kluun? It’s an amazing book that falls somewhere between sad and depressing, but I can’t imagine never having read it. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.


  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave February 2, 2011, 5:56 am

    Yup. While I recognize the “GREAT WORKS” aspect, I’ve wondered for years at the practice of county school assignments of “1984,” “Animal Farm,” and “Of Mice and Men,” along with “The Giver,” and “Romeo and Juliet” as standards for middle and high school readers. The approved reading list for each grade level is astonishingly downers all.
    And as far as “The Little Match Girl;” when my first child was tiny, I would let her sneak through nap time with picture books or (I thought wonderful), fairy tales on tape. All went well until the afternoon I heard sobbing and that deadly “Mommy, I need you!!” Running in I found my not-yet 5 yr old distraught over the Little Match Girl’s frosty demise. LMG became a euphemism in our house for anything that might be quality, but was a guaranteed downer!

  • Big Will February 2, 2011, 7:03 am

    “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

    The root. The absolute top of the factor tree. Smith, in the pub, at the end of the book, awash in Victory gin and awaiting the great news. Ugh, so sad.

  • jean sampson February 2, 2011, 8:08 am

    I did a huge paper on Thomas Hardy (took a whole semester to write) and found myself so depressed by the end of the process, that I never wanted to read him again!

  • Jeanette Swalberg February 2, 2011, 9:35 am

    I have instinctively managed to avoid reading a lot of the books mentioned above. From a previous post I’ll throw in my hat for The Lovely Bones. Another one in the YA category: I Am the Cheese. Disturbing AND depressing.

  • Heather February 2, 2011, 11:02 am

    Ibid on the Orwells. I’ll also vote for Elie Weisel’s Night and The SCUM Manifesto. Our girls here at my school tend to go in for Lurlene McDaniel novels, so I’m voting for those as well. These novels are like a Lifetime drama in e-z-2-read book form. I find them depressing for 2 reasons. The plots have lots of tragic death and sorrow, and the writing, in my opinion, stinks.

  • Vaarrick Nunez February 2, 2011, 3:46 pm

    “Go Ask Alice” by anonymous. Depressing and awful, too incredible to believe.

  • Michelle February 3, 2011, 1:27 pm

    I hate depressing books too. This is a hot topic with a friend of mine, because she thinks that there’s good depressing and bad depressing – that if something has a “message” or whatever then it doesn’t matter if it’s depressing. Personally, I think there’s enough depressing things going on in the real world without reading depressing fiction in the meantime.

    I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy and I thought that was totally depressing. (The aforementioned friend & I argued about this, because she told me to read the rest of the trilogy because it wasn’t as depressing as the first book. Liar.) Shade’s Children by Garth Nix is depressing too – I guess it has a happy-ish ending, but overall I still thought it was depressing.

    The first book I remember reading like that was Vulpes the Red Fox. I was maybe six years old and I still remember that the ending made me so angry and depressed that I threw the book across the room.

    Anyways – agree with you about Orwell, and I avoided the Lovely Bones for that exact reason too!

  • ami February 3, 2011, 4:56 pm

    The Giving Tree depresses me b/c the kid seems so outrageously selfish. And unaware of his own selfishness.

    And – always – Mistry’s A Fine Balance is the most depressing book of all for me.

    • Josh Hanagarne February 3, 2011, 7:26 pm

      i hear about that book often. I’m not going near Mistry.

  • Courtney February 4, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Is there a difference between “depressing” and “disturbing” or “alarming”? Because I’ve read lots of books that cause alarm, especially cynical-future books like the Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451. They were interesting. I didn’t find them depressionary, but cautionary.

    So, I think the most depressing book I can think of off the top of my head is “Lord of the Flies”, because the author was basically saying that we’re hard-wired to be brutal, cruel, and visceral. At the end, when the rescuer (a member of the Navy) blithely assumes the boys have been having a great time playing, it hit me like a hammer. Not only are we, as humans, this way, but we don’t even recognize our own reign of terror, and so we’re unlikely to change it. DEPRESSING!

    Also, it’s not a novel, but after I read Harlan Ellison’s “I have mouth and I must scream”, I was moping around the house for days because I was so sad for the main character. My husband laughed at me.

    • Courtney February 4, 2011, 12:09 pm

      edit: it’s called “I have no mouth and I must scream”

      • Josh Hanagarne February 5, 2011, 3:26 pm

        One of my favorite short stories of all time. I’ve mentioned it quite a bit here on the blog. Good on you!

  • Joshua | The Minimalists February 5, 2011, 8:02 am

    Nothing by David Foster Wallace? His fiction is essentially the definition of depressed writing (especially with stories like “The Depressed Person” from his “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” collection).

    Joshua Millburn

    • Josh Hanagarne February 5, 2011, 3:21 pm

      Joshua, not for me, even though I agree with you. Other than Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I genuinely enjoyed reading every one of Wallace’s books, and felt better when I finished them than when I started. Hideous Men made me laugh in enough parts that I never really got depressed by it, although there is some repulsive stuff in there.

  • page February 5, 2011, 9:02 pm

    I haven’t read all of those, but I would be surprised if any of them were more depressing than “A Star Called Henry.” It’s why I don’t read Irish authors anymore…


  • Jenny February 14, 2011, 3:21 pm

    “The God of Small Things” was one of the most unremittingly bleak books I have ever read. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING good happens to these people.

    • Josh Hanagarne February 14, 2011, 3:28 pm

      The more I hear about this book, the more I’m not going to read it.

  • Stephanie March 20, 2011, 12:01 pm

    Plain Kate, Kira-Kira off the top of my head….I’m sure there’s plenty more that I can’t think of right now…

  • Derek March 22, 2011, 12:50 pm

    “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo is #2 on my list behind “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 23, 2011, 9:49 am

      That’s a brutal one. I read that in the cabin during a family reunion and wasn’t much fun afterwards.

  • Brett April 12, 2011, 9:03 am

    Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates…or anything else by Yates for that matter.

    • RAE May 9, 2011, 4:09 pm

      Both a wonderful book and movie!

  • RAE May 9, 2011, 4:08 pm

    Nothing on The Bell Jar I personally feel that The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was the by far the most depressing book I have read. I loved it and as well am finding it hard to beat.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 10, 2011, 9:45 am

      RAE, do you reread depressing books? Would you revisit the Bell Jar?

  • RAE May 10, 2011, 9:51 am

    Yes I do, and I am planning on re-reading The Bell Jar as soon as I buy my kindle! I read The Bell Jar about four times now I love it so much.

  • RAE May 10, 2011, 9:51 am

    Sorry. *** I have read The Bell Jar about four times now I love it so much.

  • Roach July 22, 2011, 10:10 pm

    The Jungle (excluding all that socialism BS at the end) I thought was very depressing, especially because you know it’s real, and the corruption is so rampart, and so disgusting that you lose faith in humanity.
    Another one I thought (somewhat) was King Leopold’s Ghost. Also causes you to lose faith in humanity.

  • rashi January 7, 2012, 6:29 am

    not without my daughter is one of the bst depressing novels i hav read..wid a happy ending 🙂