Recently a friend of mine asked a question on Facebook: what word describes that sadness when finishing a really good book?
This resulted in a very active thread with the responses evenly split between “yeah, what is that word?” and various suggestions. One of the more popular options was ‘book hangover’, which, while I get where it was coming from, strikes me as a really a crude metaphor. It implies that if you hadn’t booked so hard, you wouldn’t be left feeling poisoned. Besides, the reality is that a hangover is the presence of a negative resulting from poor decision making while the sense of loss from finishing a good book is more the absence of a positive where there were no decisions to be made1. Something good is gone, and it was never going to turn out any other way.
In coming up with my own answer, the closest English word that came to mind was nostalgia, in that it’s a sense of loss and longing for things that have passed, except in the case of good fiction, those passed things never existed to begin with2.
This got me thinking, though. Since English is famous for appropriating words from other languages, surely there’s a language out there with the right word that just hasn’t been procured yet. I mean, there’s a ton of articles out there on words with no English translation3 and there are some very promising contenders. For example:
Aware (not to be confused with the English word with the same spelling) which is the feeling of witnessing something beautiful that is about to disappear – and this is close but not quite it, as the book is real, even if its contents aren’t, but perhaps this applies better to the turning of the last page of the book, rather than the closing of the back cover.
Fernweh has translations including ‘the opposite of homesickness’ and ‘farsickness’, or longing for a place that one has never been. I think there’s an argument here if one can consider travel to fictional worlds as part of travel, but I think that if the definition could be extended here, we could just do that to nostalgia and be done.
Hiraeth, which can cover nostalgia, homesickness, regret, but most applicable here, a longing for a home that never existed, or an irrational bond with a time, era, person or place, which I think is an even better, if not exact fit, as it flat out states the object of loss doesn’t have to be real.
However, after not quite hitting the mark here, I remembered that in addition to outright theft, there’s another way to get words in to English, which was aggressively pioneered by Shakespeare, who just flat out made stuff up. Now this, finally, brings me to:
Anemoia, a pang of nostalgia for times you’ve never experienced.
Which first appeared online in 2014 with this post in John Koening’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
In an accompanying Facebook post he explaned the etymology:
“From Greek anemos, “wind” + noos “mind.” Anemoia is the psychological equivalent of anemosis, which is when the wind severely warps the growth of a tree. In anemoia, the sheer force of time warps something in your mind, until you find yourself beginning to bend backward, leaning into the wind.”
Now while anemoia is not a word in the ‘found it in the dictionary sense’ or the ‘I’m gonna get rid of these vowels’ in a Scrabble(tm) sense, it is most definitely one in the Shakespearean tradition of ‘well I just used in a public form and it’s all over the theater/Internet’ sense. Of course I heartily approve of this, being an active participant in the latter process and all.
So having justified it as a ‘real word’, why is it my choice for describing that feeling of loss at having just finished a good book? I mean, it does compare favorably with the Welsh hiraeth, but for me it’s John’s description with his YouTube video where he introduces it with:
“Looking at old photos, it’s hard not to feel a kind of wanderlust—a pang of nostalgia for times you’ve never experienced. The desire to wade into the blurred-edge sepia haze that hangs in the air between people who leer stoically into this dusty and dangerous future, whose battered shoes are anchors locked fast in the fantasy that none of it risks turning out any other way but the way it happened.”
For me it is the reference to media that is crucial here. In looking at old photos, it’s natural to tell ourselves stories of who those people were, what those places were like, but we’ll never know the full truth of it, and in that sense we have to tell ourselves stories and ask ourselves questions to fill in the details. Anemoia describes the feeling of being unable to interact with people and places beyond the media that describes them, and if that doesn’t apply to the feeling of loss when finishing a good book, then there’s just not a word for it.
(1) …with the obvious exception being Choose Your Own Adventure™ style books.
(2) Interestingly this concept also comes up in music, with examples being genres like vaporwave or synthwave that aim to re-create a 1980’s that never existed.
(3) I read a lot of those ‘words we need in English’ articles while doing research, and there are a few words that always make the list. A few of of my favorites being the German Backpfeifengesicht ( a face in need of a fist ) and the French l’esprit de l’escalier (where you only think of the perfect comeback after you’re on the stairs, having left the argument ).