So good it makes me sick.

I’ll admit right up front that I am a very squeamish person. Blood and guts and gore will never appeal to me, in any kind of format—I’ve fainted in doctor’s offices and classrooms when presented with surgical inevitabilities and graphic videos. It’s entirely embarrassing, but try as I might to suck it up or focus on something else entirely, it doesn’t always work, and then there I am on the floor, disoriented, with someone’s face stuck right up in mine frantically wondering whether I’ve died or whatever other sorts of things people just fall over for.

I would have been better suited to the Victorian age, smelling salts in hand at all times.

I’ve grown used to these possibilities and thus steer clear of the more literal scenes in medical television shows and documentaries, and will timidly ask a person to stop talking about a particularly gruesome operation or accident. However, this morning, for the first time, I had to close the book I was reading and take a few deep breaths before opening it up again. There had been no warning, and I suppose the diseases and hospital procedures that were being described weren’t especially horrible, but they were written so darn well that the reality was right there, in clear picture in my mind. The usual wave of nausea followed by blurred vision and a strange floating feeling in my brain came over me. I tried to ignore it, frustrated with myself, because I was really enjoying the story, but I was also getting dangerously close to falling off my chair and probably knocking coffee all over the place in the middle of a fairly bustling café early in the morning, so I did the responsible thing and stopped reading for a moment. Afterward, better able to handle the words with this bit of preparation, I proceeded cautiously, feeling only a little bit sick until all talk of it had passed.

Usually, good writing takes a physical toll only in the form of tears or laughter, and while I’m wholly impressed at this new level of visceral narrative, perhaps a personal disclaimer on the front cover of: “RACHEL. PLEASE DO NOT READ OR PERHAPS ONLY SKIM PAGES 28-34 AND ALSO PAGES 49-52. THIS IS FOR YOUR HEALTH. THANK YOU.” would have been helpful.

In any case, this got me thinking about how much a novel, or I suppose, any written account, can affect us on such a human level. Music, film, theater and art of course have all been noted to do the same in many cases, but I feel that literature has often been neglected in its profound effect on the physical being. Perhaps because it’s almost fully a private enjoyment? I don’t know the answer to that one, and I don’t really expect anyone to be able to explain it, but I do ask if you have had a similar experience with a piece of writing. A physical manifestation of a usually solely mental or emotional reaction to a book—has this ever happened to you?

8 Responses to So good it makes me sick.

  1. Joelle says:

    I am the same way. In spite of my husband’s assurances that it’s only in one chapter, early on, I have never been able to get past the autopsy scene in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. He has begged me to just skip it and keep reading, but I feel like I’m cheating to skip a whole chapter!

    I’m reading Stephen King’s ON WRITING now, and his LIFE makes me squeamish. I wouldn’t even try his books.

    Interesting, unlike Rachel, real life is not a problem for me. Cut yourself? I’m there with the First Aid kit, no prob. But reading about it is too awful for me.

  2. Ian Bontems says:

    There’s a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD that had my heart pounding. It’s about halfway through, when The Man enters a house and starts to search it. The tension and creeping dread of that chapter is incredible.

    I love horror, but I’ve never read a book that affected me like that before.

  3. David says:

    This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was reading my son the sixth book in the Captain Underpants series last week, and there was a description about the book’s villainous Booger Boy that was so disgusting that I actually found myself gagging. I might have been able to get through it had I been reading to myself, but reading it aloud made it so much worse.

  4. Laura says:

    Just yesterday on the bus I had to quickly slam my book closed, cover my face in horror, and let out a quiet “AAHHH!” after I started reading a bloody suicide scene. (This particular kind of suicide scene is enough to give me the eye-floaties and light-headedness in two seconds flat, and I didn’t really see this particular scene coming.)

    I am getting uncomfortable just thinking about all this. So, yes: This definitely happens to me.

  5. Captain Underpants!! No, no, I totally agree. Not ridiculous at all.

    Of course, my nephews think this kind of literary-inspired gag reflex is hilarious, and I just want to go have a quiet moment to recover.

  6. Donn says:

    Folks: Never read Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

    A masterpiece for sure. But by god you’ll be craving a bun or an apple or anything within minutes of reading.

  7. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    For sheer loathesomeness you’d have to go no further than Colin Wilson’s 1972 novel Lingard. I’d enjoyed Wilson’s The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher’s Stone, and was looking forward to a nice creepy story, but Lingard was as poisonous to me as the fictional tome The King In Yellow. I closed Lingard and felt so unclean that I actually burned the book, which is extreme for me.

  8. Bethany Neal says:

    I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama and had a similar if-I-don’t-put-this-book-down-I-may-blush-myself-into-a-permanent-state-of-rosacea-or-hurl (still not sure which ’cause I did put the book down). I won’t go into detail as to what the subject matter was due to before mentioned rosacea/hurl endangerment, but, needless to say, I haven’t read any Easton Ellis since. Scared.

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