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When fiction ends

Do all fiction readers experience book hangovers? How does one come to term with this kind of grief...

When fiction ends

If post-book depression didn’t exist, there would be far fewer book clubs, reading circles and online book forums. The reason we look for like-minded people after finishing a book is because it’s difficult to be alone when you’re suffering a sense of loss.

“You have been living with the fictional characters through their journey, their happiness, their misery, and now the book is over, their story has ended thereby ending your experience of reading. Iss wajah say aik kammi ka ehsaas toh hota hai kitaab key khatam honay par,” says Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Urdu writer, critic and essayist.

Nayyar says that when he first finished Udaas Naslain, he grieved that the initial experience of reading Abdullah Hussein’s story had ended.

There are many words that attempt to describe this feeling; you could say you have a ‘book hangover’, which refers to the emotional distress you feel when a book you had grown attached to ends; the struggle of reconnecting with reality after finishing a book; the inability or sadness of leaving the book’s world.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Urdu writer, critic and essayist, says that when he first finished Udaas Naslain, he grieved that the initial experience of reading Abdullah Hussein’s story had ended.

All avid fiction readers probably experience book hangovers, but the way they react to the depression is likely to vary, even within their own life experiences. I am told, when I was younger, the moment I finished a storybook I would burst into tears. My mother complains that these weren’t silent contemplative tears but an all-out pervasive call for attention. “You would say that since the book is over, you now have no one to hang out with and you must immediately be taken out to buy a new novel,” she tells me.

I remember borrowing the phrase “depths of despair” from Anne of Green Gables to describe my mental state after finishing a great narrative. Fortunately, with the passage of time and the advent of the internet, I have learned to manage my despair. Now, when a book ends, and the sense of loss begins to set in, I ironically fight it by vociferously reading more.

I start with reviews of the book in question. Scores of them. If that doesn’t satisfy me I read the comments under the reviews. I engage with strangers on the internet, asking if they feel as nostalgic as me. I read interviews of the author hoping to learn something more, something new, about the story and its characters. I call up a friend who has read the novel to discuss it. If I can’t find a friend who has read the book, in desperation I’ll call up any friend and painstakingly narrate the entire story so I can then discuss it with them. The whole process is a deluded attempt to create an illusion that my experience of reading the book is not yet over.

Another word you could use to describe the feeling you experience when a book ends is ‘bookklempt’; klempt comes from the German verklempt which means to be choked up with emotion, which in turn is borrowed from the Yiddish word farklempt which means to be depressed or grieving.

I envy book critics who are duty-bound to continue this process of grieving for much longer than us regular folks. One such book critic, writing for Chicago Review of Books, Book Riot and elsewhere, is Rabeea Saleem. She says she felt “utterly bereft” when she finished reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang. “The writing was so emotionally lacerating that reading it was an absolutely heady experience. I remember that days after reading that book, I felt stripped of something essential in me,” says Saleem. She adds that when she is “reading a particularly outstanding book, I tend to slow down while reading the last few pages to savour every sentence. I know some people tend to devour the books they love but I like to stall the inevitable end”.

Saleem also felt this sadness when Dear Mr M by Herman Koch ended. She says “finishing that book felt like a crazy fun ride coming to a premature end because when I crack open the spine of a great book, I never want to have to close it again.”

Another word to identify this sense of loss, often found on online book forums is saudade — a Portuguese word that expresses state of nostalgia or longing for an object that has become absent and will never return.

An avid reader, Atiya Abbas, says she experienced temporary saudade every time an Elena Ferrante novel reached its conclusion. Luckily for her, Ferrante has seven books out, so she would jump into the next one. But then the whole series ended and Abbas finally had to face the music. For her, reading is a solitary experience, but once that is over, the only way she can come to terms with leaving the book’s world is by talking to friends. However, in this case, this was not an option she could freely exercise. “The other day when I mentioned Ferrante’s most recent book to a friend, she got very angry at me,” says Abbas. “Because all of a sudden she was reminded of the sadness she felt when that book had ended.”

A friend who devours mostly non-fiction on a weekly basis went into disbelief when I asked him if he ever got sad that a book had ended. “Who does that?” he responded. “Books are rewarding because you learn, you introspect, and then you move on to the next one,” he tells me, proving that this sense of loss is reserved only for fiction, great fiction.

A good fiction writer throws readers into a whole new world; but when the books ends and the reader is plucked out of that imaginary world, no matter how gentle the plucking is, it leaves the readers lost.

Another incredulous non-fiction reader was equally unamused by my question. “Just read the book again if you are so sad,” he offers. But, the beauty of good fiction is that after reading it, you are no longer the same person you were when you began. This is why Nayyar felt a sense of loss when he finished reading Raja Gidh by Bano Qudsia. He knew then that the feelings he experienced reading the book for the first time can never be replicated. “The way your relations with humans change over time, your relations with a book also change. This is because you, as a person, have changed after reading it the first time.”

The emotional journey that great fiction takes us on is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; it can never be recreated; the sadness we feel comes from realising that our first experience of reading a great novel is over, and nothing can make it come back.

Maham Javaid

One comment

  • It is not true that you have just one life to live. If you can read, you can live many lives, said S. I. Hayakawa and I agree totally. A good novel gives us a vision of an alternative life, with its own geography, history and civics. To enter an imaginary landscape and be out of one’s banal daily life for a short while is not escape: it is maturity. Seeing the world through the eyes of the other, enlarging our conceptions of being human, knowing people with an intimacy rarely achieved in the real world: all these are gifts of fiction. And wonderful are those who cherish this gift!

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