SparkNotes Blog

Auntie SparkNotes: When Reading Hurts

Dear Auntie,
As part of the tortures of high school, my particular school has decided to require summer reading, and work to go with it. However, it has a very hard test, therefore I can’t just look up summaries online.

The book we have to read is “The Kitchen God’s Wife.” This book has very disturbing content, and has reduced my friends and I to tears many times.It has also been the subject of many nightmares I have had over the past month.

There is rape, child abuse, and other elements of physical and mental abuse in it. It’s from first person, so it’s double as disturbing, because the emotions of the victim are described. I want to get a good grade, so I have to finish it. However, my mental health seems more important than a grade. So my question is, How do I make sure I understand the main ideas of the book, without being offended and upset to the point of tears?

Short answer? You take grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dive in…

…and then, simply put, you deal with it.

And I’m sorry, because I know this sounds unsympathetic. But the truth is, this is what we do for important books—whether they’re books we discover ourselves, or, in your case, the books that wise, well-read teachers have asked you to discover for a good cause.

Which isn’t to downplay the experience of reading it—I’m sure the book is heartbreaking. I’m sure that reading it has been agonizing. I’m sure that it’ll hurt even more before it’s done, and when it is, it’ll be up to you to decide whether it’s worthwhile to read another like it. But the fact remains that what you’re “disturbed” by isn’t age-inappropriate content, or useless gore, or needlessly explicit sex; it’s raw, emotionally powerful writing about Real Human Things. And being disturbed by Amy Tan’s gut-shreddingly true portrait of a dysfunctional family is a totally different thing from being disturbed by, oh, say, the birth scene in “Breaking Dawn.”

Great literature is supposed to elicit strong reactions like this, and it doesn’t do to shy away from feeling those emotions just because they aren’t pretty. Your mental health isn’t at risk, here; you just feel sad, and shocked, and scared, which is exactly what you should feel when reading something that’s sad, shocking, or scary. Not only can you handle it, but you owe it to yourself not to hide from the truth of human experience—even if that means opening your mind, and your heart, to some dark and frightening worlds.

So, I know it’s hard, but try to think of what you feel while reading this book as a good and necessary thing. And really do let yourself feel it. Get angry. Get sad. Cry if you need to. And remember that if you need a break, you can always close the book and take a breath. But allowing yourself to feel someone else’s pain, and be moved by it, is worth it in so many ways. It will make you a better and more compassionate person—and a more insightful reader, too.

How do you handle hard reads? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at

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