The Books Briefing: How Literature Helps Us Grieve

Mourning in poetry, memoirs, and fiction: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A black-and-white photo of a young boy reading by candlelight
Town of Rovaniemi. 1948. (Werner Bischof/Magnum)

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. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

(Doug McLean)

Words about hope in grief
“A close friend of the publisher at New Directions unexpectedly lost her husband of 25 years. The pain and loss she felt was totally devastating, as if an enormous wave had crashed over her and she could find no way to surface. Her despair seemed complete and endless. Seeking refuge in words, she suggested to our publisher that … we should bring out an edition of poems on grief and mourning.”

The purgatory that comes after losing a child
“In the last moment of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil haven’t actually escaped the underworld yet. They are only being afforded a glimpse of what ultimate beauty might feel and look like. That image somehow exactly captures where our lives were, and where, in some ways, our lives still are and may always remain.”

(Tim Macpherson / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic)

Grief in a near-future world
“Mary South imagines a near future in which the human pursuit of control through technology greatly intensifies. Written with dark humor and a striking lack of sentimentality, these stories are vehicles for characters who each use tech to try to retrieve that which is irrevocably lost: the freedom of the pre-violated body, the child taken from the world prematurely, the normalcy that vanishes after the death of a loved one.”

(Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

A striking debut novel about filial grief
The author’s “unusual exploration of filial grief occasionally feels like an evasion of grief. At the same time, [the protagonist] Thandi’s odyssey is shot through with genuine sadness. Mourning evades prescriptions, this book reminds us.”

(Grove Press / Reuters / The Atlantic)

How one author found comfort in falconry after the death of her father
“[Helen] Macdonald mines grief for its wildness, and allows that to manifest each time she’s hunting with her hawk, breaking a rabbit’s neck or plucking a pheasant.”

(Doug McLean)

William Blake’s words for the grieving
“My experience of grief shifted, as though the passage told me to live in that grief as long as I might need, that—through memories, through love, through the very impulse to grieve—it was entwined with joy; that stitched somewhere in my sadness—which seemed insurmountable—was a thread of happiness.”

📚“Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. The book she’s reading next is Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt.

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