Why Books Make Us Cry

In a recent conversation with a friend about books that have made us cry, I realized that most of my book-induced tears had fallen while I was traveling--specifically, while I was either behind the wheel of a car and listening to an audiobook, or in mid-air, reading on a plane. I have been wondering since that talk with my friend whether this travel-crying is particular to me or whether there is something about being in between places that makes a reader more vulnerable to the emotional pull of a story.

It's not difficult for me to name the novels that have brought tears to my eyes because, while I practically sob at the drop of a hat during movies and television, I remain relatively stony while reading a book. Not stone-faced, for I know (from the pesky reflective screen of an iPad) that I make faces while I read. Surprise, concern, perplexity: I don't hesitate to feel and show those emotions. But no matter how much I love a book, its characters, the writing, I hardly ever cry, and so the list is short. Not counting books read before adulthood, here it is:

Ian McEwan's Saturday
Ann Patchett's Bel Canto
Patchett's State of Wonder (yes, her batting average is high with me)
Elias Venezis' The Aeolian Land (in its Greek original Η Αιοληκη Γη)*

Feel free to speculate on common qualities among these novels. But I think it's the circumstances of their reading that made their stories particularly moving. Three of these four found me in transition. When we travel, perhaps our defenses are down; we have little recourse to our habitual comfort systems; we are free from (some) family and it's likely we have left behind people we love or are going to meet them. Our sensibilities are heightened when we travel, elevated to a more intense pitch, so we are ready to laugh and cry (who among us has not flown three rows behind the guy guffawing loudly to some mediocre in-flight comedy?). Moving between worlds, we are more susceptible to the fabricated reality of the fictional world, and so it's likely we succumb to that world's emotional currents. If novel-reading promotes empathy, imagine the depth of empathy in a reader whose usual world has faded away--beneath the clouds or in the rear-view--and not been replaced by anything tangible and fixed. The fiction becomes the world in a powerful way.

So when the Greeks board the boat to take them from their home in Anatolia, or when the home-invasion victim improbably diverts the would-be rapist with a recitation of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", or when the scientist drives down the street to the neighborhood of her dead colleague, that is our world and those are the people in it.

Please tell me I'm not alone in my lachrymose literary experiences. What books have made you cry? Were you at home, or away, when you read them?

*(I may have misted up over Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom Drury's The End of Vandalism, but neither one of these books induced the serious cheek-rolling, collar-wetting tears of these Fab Four.)


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About the Author

Henriette Lazaridis' novel TERRA NOVA is forthcoming from Pegasus Books in December 2022. She is the author of the best-selling novel THE CLOVER HOUSE. Her short work has appeared in publications including Elle, Forge, Pangyrus, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, New England Review, and The Millions, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. She teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in Greece.

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