The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

So far this year, I’ve been drawn to more serious subject matter. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

Today’s another one. The difference this time is that the book in question, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, shredded me. I don’t just mean that this book made me sad.

This book broke me.

I had to take breaks from this book. I was in tears, I was sobbing reading this book.


This book, by Åsne Seierstad, started when the author was asked to write a piece about the massacre for Newsweek. Seierstad was used to writing about conflict in the Middle East, about war happening in far away places, but her home in Norway was always a peaceful refuge from her work. Now the conflict had bled into her home.

The result is a stunning portrait of what happened: in Anders Breivik’s life, in Norway over the past 40 years, in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on that summer day in 2011.

Seierstad doesn’t just look at the radicalization of Breivik – his wreck of a home life, days as a tagger in the city, and the eventual descent into hatred and delusion that saw him plant a bomb in the centre of Oslo before shooting a bunch of unarmed teenagers on a secluded island.

She also looks at the lives of those lost: Simon Saebo, a teenager from the north of Norway who had  a summer job at the cemetery and started a local youth branch of the Labour Party; Bano Rashid, whose family fled the war in Iraq, who was so intent on becoming a “proper” Norwegian and loved the traditions of her adopted country, and hoped to become a minister one day; Anders Kristiansen, another young man who thought one day he could be Prime Minister, who had asked his mom to weave him a blanket the colour of the summer sky. By the time the book gets to that day in July, you know these kids, their families, their hopes and dreams.

And this is why this book was so difficult to read – possibly the most difficult book I’ve ever read – these children had their whole lives ahead of them. Each of them was hard-working, clever, decent and they all had plans for working towards a better Norway, a better world. And some asshole, blinded by hatred, fueled by delusions of grandeur, took it upon himself to end their promising young lives.

Seierstad tells a complete story. The before, the after, the trial, how the families are coping; but she also includes about 60 some odd pages of the actual shooting. I wasn’t prepared for that. She looks at the response of the Norwegian authorities, how things maybe didn’t go as well as they could have. She is critical but you get the sense that everyone in Norway was just flabbergasted that anything like this could happen there. Altogether, this adds up to one gut-punch of a book.

I’ve thought about those kids often in the days since I read it; about their parents and siblings having to navigate the rest of their lives without them. Seierstad got approval from all the families of those whose children’s last moments are covered in the book – their families don’t want them to be forgotten. Reading this book seems like a good start in honouring their memories.

30 thoughts on “The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

  1. Oh! Reading your review it sounds like an emotionally excruciating read. I dont think I have it in me to go through this. I was really broken reading Human Acts and also Man’s Search for Meaning, but I dont think they are anywhere close to this book.


  2. yeeesh this sounds rough. I found myself in a similar situation when I read A Mother’s Reckoning, which was written by the mother of one of the columbine shooters. But as I said before, I don’t regret reading these books, its important to feel the feels that come with them!

  3. Wow. Since I’ve been wanting to read this book for the last year or so I appreciate the effort you took by reading such a difficult book, but also sharing your thoughts. Thank you very much!

  4. Wow. I think I need to read this. Adding to my Nonfiction Nov TBR list. I love true crime stories, the psychology behind what drives someone to do something like this, and I’m due for an emotional gut-wrencher.

    Hope you’re picking up a nice recovery book to follow this one!

  5. Wow. This sounds horrifying. I totally agree with Anne – I felt similar reading A Mother’s Reckoning. I’ve been gearing myself up to read Columbine, to understand a wider picture, but haven’t been able to do it yet. The structure of learning about the victims reminds me of Another Day in the Death of America too. The stories hit even harder when you read the back stories of those who died. Adding this to my list for someday in the future!

  6. Wow! You have definitely convinced me to get a copy of this book now, even though I’ll probably end up choking up throughout the story. The whole thing just sounds like something out of your worst nightmare, and it’s devastating to know this has actually happened.

  7. Thank you for reviewing this book. It sounds like a tough read. I used to read a lot of things of this nature when I was a bit younger but now I think that I am not really able to anymore. It was an awful day that will be forever etched on my memory.

    • I so remember the day this happened, too. I just remember thinking “Norway?! This is happening in Norway!?” I wonder if I will shy away from books like this when I’m older? I will say this book continues to haunt me.

  8. It is so hard to face all the evil and darkness in the world that is, as this author experiences, bleeding into realms that we formerly thought safe. It can be so difficult to read books like this and yet I feel it’s important to know what is happening and somehow find the strength to still live and act in such a world. Thank you for sharing your responses with us.

  9. I felt destroyed by Missoula by Jon Krakauer. It’s all about young women who are raped in this college town that has a Big Important football team. Part of me feeling destroyed is because I, too, went to a university with a Big Important football team that was investigated many times for players being accused of rape. In one case, a young woman who told everyone she was raped by a football player shortly thereafter killed herself. The whole book DETAILS the rapes. They “drag out,” except they don’t because that’s how it happened. I imagine your book is much like Missoula.

    • YES. Missoula was another one that left me in pieces. Although, I would say that the dominant emotion while reading Missoula was RAGE. Rage that these schools protected those who had violated young women, who disposed of the women like they were nothing. Reading the Seierstad book, I mostly felt really, really sad. These children were just wiped off the face of the earth, they are just gone.
      Mostly, it sucks that both books even exist.

  10. What a powerful and worthwhile read. Thanks for your thoughts on this one and for encouraging a few others to share in the experience.

    I’m curious about your having wondered if you think you will read fewer books like this when you get older. Do you feel like you are less likely to explore this demanding territory as you get older, or do you see other people making those choices with their reading? I’m thinking about this kind of thing too, why some readers take these works on and some do not (not ever, not often, not regularly).

    • I wonder if I will just get weary of the world and look to escape more via reading. It’s a lot harder to read these kinds of books when it’s still happening, you know? It’s one thing to read about horrible things that happened 75 or 100 years ago, it’s something else to read about those things that are still happening. And I just think I will have less patience for those kinds of reads as I get older.

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