Reading in the dark

Photo: Jonathan Thacker, via Creative Commons

Photo: Jonathan Thacker, via Creative Commons

I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious path I get on from time to time or if it’s pure coincidence, but every so often I find myself reading one dark book after another.

And, because I do most of my reading at night, at least when I’m not on vacation, I’m literally reading dark literature…in the dark.

Already a lifelong insomniac, it’s hard to blame the books for the tossing and turning. In fact, if anything, this category of literature tends to help me go to sleep. Go figure.

Having said that, any good book–dark or light–can keep me up way way later than a working person ought to be.

Okay, you say, what exactly are you talking about when you say, “dark literature?”

Well, it could be anything. Here are two recent examples, both by the way, on my “recommended list” for summer reading. Speaking of which, don’t forget to send me your recommendations for the list we’ll be compiling during our summer reading call in on Tuesday, July 9 from 10 am-noon, with my favorite co-hosts Chris Robinson and John Ernst. You can fast-forward your recommendations by emailing them to me at anytime between now and July 9.

Back to my examples…

cover_dogstarsFirst, I read “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller. This is a post-apocalypse (in this case, pandemic-based apocalypse) tale. Aside from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” I can’t think of a scifi/fantasy/futuristic piece of fiction I’ve read in recent years. But, like “The Road,” this book is so well written and rings so many bells right on key, I enthusiastically recommend it to all–including the teenagers, small plane pilots, gun-users, and homemakers…in other words, everyone. Definitely consider reading it with a night-light on your back porch, or in a tent.




orphanmasterRight now, I’m just finishing Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” which won the Pulitzer last year. This is dark. In some ways, much darker than the post-apocalyptic books because it’s about a North Korea that is, essentially, a countrywide prison and slave labor culture. Yeah. Think Alexandr Solzenitzhyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”…times ten. Johnson’s book steps inside the hearts and minds of people surviving, and dying, in a deeply repressive society, but does so in a way that makes us look at and laugh at our own oh-so-much-better world…we think. I fell asleep with this one on my chest last night.

Tonight, I finish it. But then what? Here’s where you step in:

Dark titles from the contemporary list or old classics. Chime in here and help a nocturnal reader fill the wee hours.


  1. Ellen Rocco says:

    Once again, at this time of year, movie selection, uh, iffy. But we just wanted that air-conditioned theater experience a few nights ago so we went to what seemed like the lesser of several “evils” and watched World War Z. Honestly, Brian, we were laughing most of the time. It just seemed so silly. Kind of beyond “exploitive” to the point of spoof. Bill has been clicking his teeth at me ever since…

  2. Brian Mann says:

    I definitely go through periods when dark seems…right.

    McCarthy’s The Road is the first novel I’ve read in 20 years that actually made me cry. It felt so real and immersive that I had to come up for air about every five pages.

    Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was another end-times sci-fi tinged doom-book that felt so true and claustrophobic that I couldn’t put it down and couldn’t wait to finish it and get away from it.

    Re-reading Anna Karenina while on holiday this spring, I reveled again in the fact that Tolstoy is able to be incredibly dark, but also celebrates life with equal vividness. His darkness is maybe a little deeper because of the contrast.

    One final observation. I’ve become incredibly impatient with what I think of as doom- or apocalypse-porn. This is the literature that sort of romanticizes chaos and ugliness.

    The zombie genre, for example. Or the endless books that use the death of children as their emotional engine in ways that just seem exploitative.

    Going dark can be necessary, an act of truth-telling. But it can also be a cheap trick, an easy gimmick.

    This, again, is what makes writers like McCarthy so powerful. Reading that book, I thought again and again, “It is morally necessary for everyone who cares about the future of the planet to read this book.”

    Meanwhile, watching “World War Z,” I kept thinking, “This is hateful, ugly brutish gore-porn.”