Whit’s End: Books help us share the human experience
“We wanted to do something for you. Since books are the thing that bring us together and the place we turn to understand the world, we bought you a $50 gift certificate to a store called Book Train.”
I received a text to that effect from my friends Robyn and Mandy the morning after I learned my sister died. I had moved to Glenwood Springs little more than a week earlier, and I was faced with the greatest personal tragedy I’d known. In some ways, I was fortunate; I lived with best friends and because of them I already had a community that would rally around me. But there are also internal aspects of grief that can only be faced alone.
Books are often my companion in such moments.
That afternoon I walked to Book Train, retrieved my gift certificate and asked the woman behind the counter for reading recommendations. What do you read when you’re in mourning, when the new facts of your own story seem more like fiction? The night before I had curled up with my favorite book, “Looking for Alaska” by John Green. I literally curled around it — didn’t read it, as exhaustion had set in — but its presence was still soothing.
The bookseller offered several suggestions, and then I sat on the floor to examine the gathered pile of books. I took home “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, a novel about a man dealing with loss and the community that continues to give his life meaning. After I finished it days later, I left it in Florida with my mother, the person who taught me that books are home.
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But our stories aren’t always tidy. Especially in the early days after Cristin’s death, I would often fold into crossword and logic puzzles for escape. I read for recognition, but sometimes I was slow to crack a book because they invited me to feel.
This week I read “The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading” by Anne Gisleson. She knows that struggle well; it was the motivation for the reading group at the center of the memoir’s story. Gisleson’s youngest sisters, twins, committed suicide a year and a half apart. Although that isn’t my story, her struggles resonated:
“She wasn’t just doubting language, but also the redemptive power of the narrative. (Joan) Didion’s proclamation ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ suddenly seemed like neurotic grandstanding. She reversed it, wondering what stories her sisters told themselves in order to die,” Gisleson wrote.
Months later, I again wandered the aisles of Book Train, looking for comfort after my eldest cat’s death. I was in the midst of reading Terry Tempest Williams’ “When Women Were Birds,” and so the author’s “Finding Beauty in a Broken World” seemed the right choice.
Another day, I returned to the shop and commented on both the sorrow and the comfort of what had become my death routine. My sister would have appreciated it; she was well acquainted with the power of losing herself in a book. Bookstores and libraries are filled with stories, with knowledge, with understanding.
That’s what I found from the shop’s cashier that day. As I described why I’d established such a routine, she shared her own experience with loss.
“It’s the hardest part of being human,” she said.
But the empathy offered by others — whether in writing or in a brief, compassionate conversation — is one of the best.
Carla Jean Whitley is the Post Independent’s features editor. Send her your book recommendations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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