I have experienced many deaths in reading, and some stay with me a long time. I don’t grieve for the character as I would a loved one, but I still feel a sadness drift down and rest on my shoulders like the ash that covered Pompeii. It’s all the worse since I have to witness each death alone in my own head and the world keeps on turning around me. No one else seems to notice that the most devastating thing just took place, but how would they?
When you’ve read thousands (I would guess) of books, you experience a lot of death in the writing. Especially if it’s some kind of fiction. You can generally expect death in horror, that seems like a given. It’s the same with crime and mystery. Not always, of course, but there’s a lot of it in there.
I have read about a lot of deaths that broke my heart. Rowling wrote a few that stung and George R.R. Martin wrote too many for me to handle. There have been a few close calls with Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman that had me completely devastated, only to find later that my fear was unnecessary.
Then we have the actual deaths in non-fiction that aren’t created for readers. Those cut deeply, whether they are adults, children, or animals.
When characters that we relate to are facing the worst, or they are removed from the book completely, it is a painful experience. We become so attached to characters that our brains can even believe that we are the ones experiencing what we are reading (according to a recent study that was all over the internet). These characters become part of your subconscious while you are reading, and they dig in deep.
The worst death in literature, for me, was probably that of Dumbledore (I know that’s potentially a spoiler, but that book has been out for years and years). Of all the deaths that I have read about, fiction and non-fiction, his was the only one that actually caused me to weep. I felt sadness wrap its cool fingers around my heart and settle there for days. To know that he sacrificed himself did nothing to make it better, it only made it worse. When Harry was feeding him that potion I didn’t want to keep reading. I wanted to open the pages, throw myself into them, and drink it for him so that he wouldn’t suffer anymore. I suffered along with him and the only way that I could repay him for his years of comfort and entertainment were to keep on reading, even if it hurt.
Let’s think about the brilliance of that. Ink smeared over a flat piece of mashed wood caused me to feel strong emotions. Another person, who I have never met, silently communicated some of the only written words that have made me cry. Those books and everything in them took place completely in my head while everything in the world just went along doing its thing. Dumbledore’s death meant more to me than the death of a movie star or even an author that I had loved. Why? Because I felt connected to his struggle. I felt like he was a part of my life. I felt as if I knew him. That’s an amazing feat in writing.
The practice of reading books is actually quite insane when you peel away the layers that makes it sensible. If you remove the details and shave it down to the most simple description, it sounds nonsensical. But there’s beauty and wonder in nonsense, and it’s only nonsense until it becomes socially accepted.
In reading, what was the worst death for you? What was the book?