A new week begins and a nation mourns, as nations have done since the dawn of time: Wherever humans gather, there will at some point be tragedy.
Twenty children and six adults who cared for and about them are gone. How are we to understand? How could anyone do something so terrible? How do we go on?
I would argue that the best way is through--and through reading.
Bear with me. I am not here to prescribe titles or to tell anyone to read something "better" or of a specific tone. My point is to recommend the role of reading, because it does something nothing else can in this sort of situation: It allows us to enter in to the consciousness of other people, especially when those other people are otherwise completely unavailable to us.
Reading can do that. In this situation, one example I can offer is Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin, a novel that many people are probably talking about in the wake of the Newtown horrors, since the protagonist named in the title is a troubled teen who goes on a shooting spree in a school. The book, narrated by his mother, is a searing examination of what it means to cope with a child who seems monstrous. But the power of Shriver's work lies less in the details of how and when and why than it does in its evocation of a woman who is scrabbling desperately to come to terms with the unthinkable, a portrait that no television interview could possibly give, even it were conducted at the length of a mini series.
Reading can do that, and it can also let us know what it must be like to hide children in cabinets to save them from a shooter, as teachers do in Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. Lamb's novel is a fictional account of the Columbine shootings, and he weaves firsthand narratives of what happened on that dreadful day with the story of a fictional couple whose lives are forever altered afterwards.
Reading can let us into the hearts and minds of the lost. Think of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, in which Susie Salmon speaks to us from her version of the afterlife, and perhaps even leads her distraught, devoted father to bring a killer to justice.
Reading can even, if we are willing, let us into the hearts and minds of the perpetrators of heinous crimes. One difficult but amazing book is The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, a 1952 novel that has become a classic of crime fiction for its portrait of a sociopath working as a small-town sheriff. However, when it comes to the truly incomphrensible, nonfiction can be powerful, too; In Cold Blood by Truman Capote deservedly remains the most chilling retracing of a murderer's path.
I am not suggesting that anyone directly affected by the Newtown tragedy pick up one or any of these books immediately. I also realize that all of us are affected by this tragedy in some way. However, during a lifetime of reading, I have also realized two things: I've often learned something about my own life through reading a novel or a biography, but I've far more often learned something about someone else's life through reading, sometimes even in the same books. I don't think I have to espouse a particular religious faith to share that I believe we are here for each other rather than ourselves.
Thus, the most important thing about reading: Reading can help us heal, because it can show us that other people are both like us, and also rare and strange and precious and different. Those of us who know no one in Newtown, Connecticut, still know children, and parents, and families, and we can imagine what our feelings and reactions and deeds might be in a similar situation. Our imaginations are what allow us to sympathize and empathize with others; our imaginations are what allow us to create stories that teach us to reach for what is best in us all.