"Bibliotherapy won't work for this," a friend commented on Facebook after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I disagree. Books cannot at this time offer solace for the overwhelming sorrow of the families of the shooting victims but for the rest of us, joined in their grief but unable to fathom its depths, books can offer the comfort we seek in the wake of tragedy.
Books remind us, again and again, that we are not alone in the world. We are not alone in suffering heartache, questioning purpose, searching for justice, or defining meaning. And we are not alone in the struggle to overcome darkness and make our way back to the light of love, friendship, and grace.
In the novel Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, a young girl witnesses terrible things during a revolution on her small Pacific island. The girl survives the horrors, in part because of the reliance she placed on a friendship she had made with Pip of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. She met him while reading aloud from the book in school: it was "one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed." Another world. A world of shared agony but also of sharing a vision of light when darkness swirls all around.
Books of all kinds reaffirm what life is: a cycle of joy and sorrow, over and over. We are not alone in our sorrows or our joys. From books we can learn the importance of remembering - we will never forget the twenty children killed on Friday or the adults who had dedicated their careers to care for them - and of looking forward, to a future of greater safety for children and dedication to our families. From books we learn the importance of kindness, empathy, and commitment.
From books we can find escape from horror but also find a way through it and back to the possibilities of goodness. Yes, evil abounds but goodness can prevail. I know, because I've seen it happen in book after book after book. Novels, biographies, histories, poetry, plays, and picture books: if we, along with the authors and thousands of other readers, can imagine a better world, we can make it happen.
I live twenty-two miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School. I've kept the lights glowing, night and day, on my outdoor evergreens, as a symbol of hope. Hope for the survivors of the shooting, and hope for all of us. There is so much we can do, and must do. Pass an assault weapons ban now, comfort our children, and care for our neighbors.
And read. We can read. To ourselves, and to those around us. What comfort there is in hearing the voice of a loved one, reading out loud the words of The Bible ("Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning...") or Dickens' A Christmas Carol ("I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value...") or Alfred Lord Tennyson's Ulysses: "Though much is taken, much abides..."
None of us are alone; as President Obama promised the people of Newtown last night, they are not alone. Books show us we are not alone. They are evidence of our joined humanity and proof of our common struggle to find meaning and understanding. We search for light in the darkness and we find it. In each other, and in our books.