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May You Find Some Comfort Here

Published onDec 27, 2023
May You Find Some Comfort Here
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It’s an odd experience looking for writing inspiration. Sometimes it comes without effort, especially if one has been thinking about the topic for quite some time. Other times, it’s a mighty struggle, and only the combined forces of panicked procrastination and assorted promises made to other people will squeeze out something palatable at the eleventh hour. I was spoiled with this issue’s topic. It sometimes feels as though the past few years have been nothing but disruption, both within and without the library. My only task for this column was to choose one disruption and link it to books and reading. Should I write a list of banned books that have made a big impact on me? Share stories of pivoting our readers’ advisory services back and forth and back again as our buildings opened and closed? Look at TikTok and speak to the incredible impact it has made on the book buying (and borrowing) industry? There were so many interesting writing paths to take.

And then my friend died.  

I want to take a selfish few sentences to talk about my friend. She was creative, enthusiastic, and ferociously loyal. She was devoted to the teens she served with verve and passion. She had the mad internet skills to go from searching out family history to digging up the best prices on bulk yarn to finding exactly what existed on any given patch of land a century ago. Even when she was at her most ill, her humor and care for others shone through. We originally met while getting our librarian degrees and we had plans to grow into proper old harridans. We planned to happily terrorize people into reading and enjoying themselves in whatever library of the future we happened to be racketing around in. And then her illness had to get in there and muck everything up (in no uncertain terms, cancer can go straight to hell).

All of us have been blindsided by grief or suffered loss in one way or another, so I’ll spare you the descriptions of the aftermath. Suffice it to say, there was a point when I looked up from the emotional mess in my head and started thinking about other people. How many other colleagues are dealing with loss or rage or change on top of the disruptions that are happening at work? I would guess everyone. And yet, library staff somehow manage to juggle those tough emotions and remain flexible and kind on the job. So, instead of speaking about the disruptions, I’d instead like to offer some suggestions for finding consolation in the library. Here’s to the folks struggling with grief and still coming to work. I see you. I’ve been you. Whether it's for you or the patrons you serve, may you find a moment of comfort among these recommendations.

Nonfiction

There’s a wealth of options for those seeking consolation in the nonfiction section. Of course, there’s the direct Dewey route of 155.937 (the Death and Dying subset of the psychology section). There's everything from the heartfelt (Grief is Love by Marisa Renee Lee) to darkly humorous (see Dead People Suck by Laurie Kilmartin). Many people turn to faith to make sense of or handle tragedy. A classic work of grief through a Christian lens is A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. You can find that book (and others) in 242.4. For Judaism, try 296.44/45. You might try Saying Kaddish by Anita Diamant for a straightforward explanation of Jewish death and mourning rituals, and how modern Jews can make the traditions their own. If Islam is your faith, walk straight over to 297.

For less typical suggestions, look at gardening (635), cooking (641.5) or crafting (745.5+). Sometimes focusing on something other than your grief, especially if it’s presented in small steps, can make a day bearable. Poetry can be a balm to the soul. There’s something about a poet who can give words and substance to the unadulterated, formless pain careening around inside someone who is grieving. The general nonfiction number is 811.54, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lovely collection on loss that poets.org has put together on their website. 

Finally, biographies and memoirs can be the connection you didn’t know you needed. It’s a relief to meet fellow grievers (on the page at least) who understand what it’s like to walk through the dark even as the rest of the world keeps turning. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner has been popular these past few years (for excellent reason!) but of course there are others scattered across the nonfiction section. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a beautiful meditation on the loss of the author’s father and the monumental task of training a hawk that pulled her through the worst. In It’s OK to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too), Nora McInerny finds many pockets of humor and joy during her husband’s diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death from brain cancer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote Notes on Grief, an incredible musing on the death of her father and societal expectations on how we show our loss that is packed into a mere 67 pages.

Fiction

Fiction is a much trickier thing to suggest to someone who is grieving. We’re all looking for something a little different. Distraction? Intensity? The familiar? The only way to help others (or yourself) is just to talk it through. When someone is ready to read fiction, I’ve found that they tend to be very straightforward in what they want, or don’t want, in their reading choices. Be sure to urge folks to check trigger warnings. Our goal here is comfort, not additional emotional weight the reader must carry.

Funnily enough, horror has been the genre that I’ve gravitated to in the past couple of months. I appreciate that the stories don’t shy away from (occasionally gruesome) death and the high emotions of the tales are the only things that can break through a particularly gray day. My favorite recent reads during hard days are The September House by Carissa Orlando and Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas. If your needs are different, there’s always a good mystery afoot. Readers can either try twelve authors riffing on a classic character in Marple: Twelve New Stories or something entirely new like Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murders by Jesse Q. Sutano. A new and newly popular genre is cozy fantasy: reads that have all the magical trappings of your typical fantasy adventure with relatively low stakes. Bookshops and Bonedust is a soon-to-be published book by Washington state author Travis Baldree. If you’re not aware, his first book Legends and Lattes was one of the first cozy fantasies to make a real splash in the book world. Baldree’s second book has all the charm and cuddlesome comfort of the first. Another cozy fantasy that adds some romantic elements is The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna. In my experience romance is not a genre that people who are grieving tend to seek out, although every person experiencing loss is different. If it’s romantic emotional depth that you’re looking for, try Kennedy Ryan’s Before I Let Go or Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle. If you're ready for some chuckles, I laughed out loud despite myself at Jenna Levine’s My Roommate is a Vampire and chuckled even more at Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People. I could keep going forever with fiction but let me just add a couple contemporary books to finish. Sometimes the last thing people want is anything genre or otherworldly. The Celebrants by Steven Rowley features a group of friends who throw themselves living funerals to remind them of the goodness of life and The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer features a death doula who faces fears about living her own life.

While most of the books I just wrote about are items that have served to comfort me, I feel that the enduring promise of reading is the possibility of finding a truth or moment of empathy for the right reader in the right moment. Books can’t restore what’s lost to us, but they can shine a light towards a feeling, memory, or path that may make grief easier to bear. As for me, I’ll continue to miss my friend but I take comfort in knowing that echoes of her can always be found if I just turn the right page. So long buddy, I’ll look forward to seeing you when I’m reading.

A female-presenting person with brown hair tied back into a bun smiles at the camera. Jenna is wearing a mustard yellow top and a floral patterned jacket in this headshot.
Jenna Zarzycki is an adult services librarian at King County Library System who lives and works in South King County. She adores talking about books to anyone who will listen and regularly contributes to KCLS’ BookMatch and booklist services. Her favorite reads tend towards fantasy, romance, and narrative nonfiction, although any book has the possibility to become a new favorite.
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