Why do sad songs lift the spirits? So begins “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole” by Susan Cain, whose first book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” was both a revelation and a revolution in the field of popular psychology when it was published in 2012. Cain, a former lawyer, masterfully argued in “Quiet” that a culture built for extroverts fails to understand and appreciate the gifts of introversion. The book liberated and celebrated the experience of inwardness amid the American obsession with outward “likability” and charismatic confidence. For Cain, the quiet remove of the introvert belied a thoughtful form of leadership in professional and personal life.
The book became a resounding success with readers, book clubs, universities and professional conferences, and transformed Cain into an unlikely but essential thought leader in a new era of self-help writing. Her accompanying TED talk has been viewed 30 million times. “Quiet” remains an intelligent, thorough and beautifully written work of popular psychology.
Ten years later, Cain returns with a lyrical exploration of a different mood. “Bittersweet” is a biography and celebration of the “melancholic” disposition in a culture fixated on relentless positivity. It’s the ennui Cain says she grappled with her whole life until she began to accept its creative possibilities. Suffering, loss and pain are not feelings simply to be medicated or avoided but instead to be processed, absorbed and relished. Drawing on the music of Leonard Cohen, psychological research and her own inheritance as a descendant of Holocaust victims, Cain delivers a book-length treatise on how to live alongside pain. As with the songs of Nina Simone or the writing of Maya Angelou, the art of suffering becomes the book’s central example to show how pain opens a path to beauty. The bitter is the sweet.
Is “Bittersweet” musicology, a biography of emotions, a heartfelt memoir or an airport self-help work? The answer seems unclear even after my second reading, but it certainly draws on all those genres in a style that mirrors the language of TED talks, graduation speeches and therapeutic podcasts. Cain is a poetic writer, and she is self-consciously publishing “Bittersweet” in a much more emotionally raw and revelatory moment than when “Quiet” was released. Vulnerability, emotional agility, inherited trauma and self-care are concepts that are now almost cliches in mainstream discourse around mental and personal health. The pandemic has only deepened the urgency and volume of those conversations.
At bookshops, self-help shelves no longer carry the sense of privacy or even shame I once associated with my own small collection when I first went searching for books to help me grapple with my mother’s death 20 years ago. Speaking one’s truth, along with radical vulnerability and empathy, are my generation’s lingua franca as we come to terms with structural failures in politics, education and identity inequalities. This is reflected in the success of author and podcaster Brené Brown and the syndicated public-radio show “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippett. Feelings are having a moment and deserve their prophets and their literature.
“Bittersweet” is unfortunately not one of those books. I am neither a psychologist nor an academic, but I find the free-form methodology of psychological cartography here unconvincing and suspect. It is not original to suggest that melancholic music, sad films or heavy art opens emotional pathways to catharsis. For many cultures across the world, juxtapositions between the dark and the light have been central to their arts for centuries. In Indian classical music, Spanish flamenco and German orchestral composition, to name a few, the bittersweet is paramount. For Cain’s work to be successful at opening a new cultural conversation around sadness among American readers, it would have been helpful to be more precise in its purpose.
To focus on either the particularities of American toxic positivity or the history of darkness in 20th-century popular music could have benefited the argument. Instead, “Bittersweet” reads like a series of thought bubbles shoehorned into book form. With its blend of memoir, pop psychology, music criticism and self-help, there is an undisciplined interdisciplinarity to “Bittersweet” that fails to form a coherent and memorable whole. The book buckles under the weight of its ambitions, abruptly shifting among real-world examples of melancholic personalities, lived experiences and academic studies. It is also accompanied by an online quiz to test one’s own bittersweet tendency and a playlist of songs – some of the less-appealing attempts at accessibility.
There are seeds of several potentially beautiful books in various chapters that are quickly abandoned for a larger survey of the bittersweet disposition. Among the most powerful of those threads is Cain’s description of her once-estranged relationship with her mother, whom she learned to love despite the pain they caused each other.
I will confess that I am vulnerable to the quiet literature of interiority, to memoirs and emotional explorations of pain and repair. While “Bittersweet” is a noble and welcome effort to expand the language of vulnerability – and Cain remains a respected thought leader – the book suffers from hopscotch evidentiary support, a meandering structure and a sustained mood of inquiry. For a subject as relevant, that is indeed bittersweet.
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Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.