About a year ago, I picked up a book because the cover struck me while wandering through a bookstore. Normally, I am not someone who goes based on the cover before the plot, but before I even turned it over to read the plot, I knew I would be going home with it. What was this book, you may ask? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I had no idea the magnitude in which this book would change my life over the course of the next month and year, but standing there in that bookstore, looking at its cover of a man’s anguished expression, I just knew that there was something utterly alluring about it.
At this time, I was in my first semester of college, completely online. I was taking classes in the room I’d spent all 17 previous years of my life in and I was driving down the same roads and neighborhoods “for fun” in what little free time I had. It was hard. I think I’m still coming to terms with how difficult that period of my time, amidst a pandemic and completely new life chapter, actually was. Due to these unusual circumstances, I found myself spending a lot of days, after class, in my local bookstore. It was the one place that kept me grounded and inspired. I became familiar with the comforting scent of books, how many of them surrounded me, beckoning me into their unique atmospheres and stories waiting to be discovered. I enjoyed bookstores before, but at that moment, I fell in love.
Reading had been a solace to me all my life, but it wasn’t until the fall of last year that I truly felt the need and comfort for it in my life. I sometimes would browse for an hour or two without even buying a single book. Most time consisted of adding books to my to-be-read list or flipping through ones that piqued my interest just enough.
When I found A Little Life, I was without words. What a cover. What a plot. There was no question of how much I needed this book.
Something about the length of it was also daunting but exciting to me. I hadn’t read anything to the extent of over 400 pages since the Harry Potter series, but here I was, with an 814-page book in my arms, anticipation coursing through my body. I had so many assignments to tend to when I got home, but something about this book was calling me in ways my required literature readings weren’t.
A Little Life follows the lives of four men in their late thirties living in New York City in the years after their graduation from a small college in Massachusetts. Friendship, and their unique different interests and careers, elevate them to new understandings and places they have never experienced before. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude are the actors in this tale, although Jude becomes our protagonist as the story unfolds and more is learned of their individual, deep, and heartbreaking ways of surviving, loving, and learning. It’s a beautifully tragic story in the works of understanding humanity and emotion.
It definitely took me more than a week to read this. I had experiences reading books that elicited an internal reaction emotionally, but never before had I experienced actually sitting and reading words on a page and finding myself silently crying. The themes in this book were so dark and seductive, and they pulled me in and effectively destroyed me. A lot of critics and reviews on the book say the same. I noticed how the discourse surrounding the book was sarcastically light in acknowledging how deep this book emotionally tugs at you. Universally, the experience of reading A Little Life was extremely difficult and notably, sensationalized in some respects.
If I had known a little more about it before going into reading it, I would have looked up the trigger warnings of topics in the book. It’s not something I ever considered doing as a reader, and I don’t know if it would have ultimately held me back from the truly magnificent writing I was introduced to, but it would have warned me of what to expect.
The book hasn’t left my mind since setting it down, and that is partially due to the heavy feeling it has left in my soul as a human, but also the beautiful way it has intoxicated me into loving and finding more stories about raw friendship and humanity. It is my favorite book, no doubt, even though it disturbed me and pushed me to my limits as a reader.
Yanagihara is a beyond brilliant writer, and I admire her work so much. I am glad to have been introduced to it through the illuminating tale of A Little Life. Still, it concerns me seeing video vlogs on YouTube, and short snapshots on TikTok, promoting the experience of reading this book as something crushing, and therefore attainable and desirable to the average person.
Sensationalizing the experience of reading a book this traumatic and upsetting is not something I think is effective. It’s just not good for anyone. I realize it may be ironic for me to write a whole article about this book, and describe the conflicting feelings I have on its beauty and heaviness, and then say that sensationalizing it is problematic. Technically, I am elevating it to a position to be picked up by anyone reading this. It’s not that I don’t recommend it; I just want to insert my voice into this conversation about it in saying “It is a terrifically written book, but please be conscious of your decision in taking it on.”
I wholeheartedly believe this caution can be applied to many books, and I open up that mindfulness to you, the reader. On social media, or even in academic discourse, there can be a hefty value placed on certain works or “must-haves” in your experience in learning and being in tune with what’s popular to be in the know about. A Little Life is merely one instance of this idea, but it’s an idea I feel is worth acknowledging as someone who consumes a lot of literature and encourages others to.