During a period of deep grief years ago, the writer Rosie Schaap opened a copy of the collected works of William Blake. The experience of reading his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” she recalled, “lit a little votive in the small, dark chapel of loss, by whose light I started to see a way through.”
Like Schaap, many people have found the words to express their loss in literature. After losing his 2-year-old daughter, Greta, Jayson Greene immersed himself in Dante’s Inferno. Helen Macdonald—a writer and longtime bird-watcher—turned to falconry and the works of T. H. White (the author of The Once and Future King), after the death of her father. Another woman, after losing her husband, asked a publisher friend to compile a collection of poetry. The end result, Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, Joe Fassler writes, includes works from 20 countries, “structured like a calendar over a span of 49 days—a traditional mourning period in some Buddhist and Judaic traditions.”
Yet works such as Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel, What We Lose, are a reminder that “grief evades prescriptions,” as my colleague Amy Weiss-Meyer notes. The eerie, futuristic short fiction of Mary South explores unconventional methods of working through grief, featuring protagonists who use technology to try to retrieve the people and states of being that have been irrevocably lost. In a year that has been anything but conventional, reading literature is one time-tested method of coping that hasn’t been taken away.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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