At times of great stress, some of us take in information best by hearing it and some of us take it in by seeing it before us. But those of us who love books often find reading to be the most compelling way to reach inside ourselves to that place where the best of us resides.
As David Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times says: “We possess books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”
At a planning meeting last week for a symposium on end-of-life issues that I am organizing, I asked for suggestions of books for a resource packet.
The suggestions included How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland who says our society cloaks the wrenching aspects of death in euphemism and Dying Well by Ira Byock who, on the other hand, says death can be peaceful. And, of course, there is the pioneer in the field, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who, in On Death and Dying, listened to those who were dying and told us what she heard.
There are books of personal stories. Mitch Albom gets a great life lesson from a dying professor in Tuesdays with Morrie. Dr. Joyce Brothers in Widowed and Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking tell what it’s like to be left alone.
There are helpful books: Sorry For Your Loss: What People Who Are Grieving Wish You Knew by Alicia King is written like a handbook. And books that are practical: About Grief by Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff is a conversation about the truths of grief.
And then there are novels about life, and sometimes even love, that continues after loss, books that are as different as a Nigerian immigrant and a British major. Little Bee by Chris Cleave tells a brutal story of death peopled with wildly divergent characters while Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a wise and wry story of a widower who in trying to cling to his traditional values becomes the most modern of men.
In this Sunday’s New York Times was a timely article about Nina Sankovitch who turned to literature to find meaning in her loss. In grief over losing her older sister to cancer, Sankovitch was determined to read one book a day and to blog about the books. The reviews say her book is “intelligent, insightful, and eloquent.” Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is now on my list – both for the symposium and for personal reading.