If you’ve been on #BookTok in the last year and a half, you will have definitely seen this book pop up on your timeline.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a story about four college classmates, each navigating their careers, lives, and relationships while carrying their unique struggles. Out of all of their stories, perhaps the most heart-wrenching is Jude’s: a complex character, Jude has experienced a childhood of unimaginable suffering and trauma that has carried into his adult life. His refusal to allow anyone to help him is both infuriating and pitiful.
Even though it can often be difficult to conceptualize the horrific events in Jude’s life, the reader will develop a special attachment to Jude compared to the other characters. While some may call it misery porn, I find it more appropriate to refer to it as a very raw, dark coming-of-age story.
I should start by saying that this book isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Books are meant for our personal enjoyment and pleasure, and we shouldn’t have to read books we don’t think we’ll like just because the internet told us to. This book is as controversial as it is devastating. Its endless list of trigger and content warnings has led too many people to boycott the book without reading it. Many have criticized the author for her opinions on topics such as therapy and childhood trauma, which has added to some readers’ disdain.
It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could want to read a book so awful that it leaves you shaken to your core. But despite its heavy content, A Little Life leaves room to start a discussion about what books can really teach you. It paints a portrait of a human experience that I think many of us are privileged to have never gone through.
The beauty of books is that they provide an escape from your reality for a short period of time. They can expose you to a completely new reality that you’ve never pictured before, and you get to immerse yourself in someone else’s problems in order to forget your own. But I find that the struggle with reading heavy books is that it’s even more emotionally overwhelming for you to dive into the character’s problems than it is your own, at least in my experience.
Even so, there’s a little something that pulls you back every time. I’ve been reading A Little Life since February. While I finished most of the book in April, I’ve recently been stuck on the last 100 pages. Every time I pick it up, I can only read a maximum of two to three pages. It’s a struggle between not wanting to find out what happens next, and whether it can possibly get any worse, while also wanting to get a glimpse of the outcome. I also refuse to skip to the end and ruin things for myself.
I also want to circle back and talk about some of the controversies around the author. Previously, Yanagihara has voiced opinions on therapy and suicide, which have sparked some angry uproar. This is a good opportunity to get into the complexity of cancel culture and separating the art from the artist.
Cancel culture can have benefits when it comes to punishing people who have done horrendous and unforgivable things. However, it loses its integrity and value when we use it as an excuse to cancel everyone who says something we don’t agree with. Or those who made a genuine mistake but have since proved that they have learned from their actions and will not repeat them. I really liked Jameela Jamil’s take on this, which you can find here.
In Hanya Yanagihara’s case, her views are often reflected in her writing, which makes separating the art from the artist a little more complicated. Being a public figure, she also has a significant influence on her audience, and it may be wiser to tread lightly when discussing her potentially harmful opinions. While I don’t agree with her views, I think consuming her content should be up to the individual. After all, two things can be true at once: we can still read her books while being critical of her actions.
In summary, I wouldn’t recommend reading A Little Life unless you really feel like you can handle the heavy content. There’s a good chance that I’ll finish this book and never pick it up again!