This will be a very short post, I'm afraid, and probably unusually illiterate, but please bear with me.
I have had a truly terrible week, with immense family trauma. In the dark times, when I was on my own (which was often) I turned to books as a way of making sense of what was happening, or of finding a way to cope with it. I don't mean making sense of events in seeing that there is a greater purpose, or finding spiritual solace in belief. I mean finding their place in the great jigsaw of human experience, discovering where they click with the experiences of others over the past few millennia. And so while the world seemed to be crumbling around me, I read Pearl and In Memoriam and thought about Schopenhauer and dug words of Ben Jonson out of my memory, and found there something to cling to while the tempest raged.
It is not a comfort, really, to see the sufferings of others. We would be the poorer culturally if Hallam had not died young, but we cannot wish his death on Tennyson (or himself) to enrich our later lives. It is finding our experience articulated with clarity and compassion, having it validated and given form by recognition.
In the Middle Ages, people believed bears were born without form and licked into shape by their mothers (there was a good reason for this belief, don't diss my friends from the 12th century). I feel that in some sense our experiences are the same - the awful experience of the last week was a formless mass, all the more terrifying because it had no shape. But reading, and recalling texts read years ago, helps to give shape to the terror and to what had happened. Literature - or just stories, literary or not - helps us discern the shapes in our experiences, good or bad, and see their shadows in the recorded lives of others. And literature, going beyond stories and not always requiring fiction, gives comfort by showing that it is possible to find words to formulate the horror and through those words to reach out to others and be understood. We can borrow the words of great writers when we cannot find our own (how many of us have used a quotation as our Facebook status in extremis?).
Perhaps I could have found something of value by looking online for support groups, and connected with other living people going through something similar, but it was not where I turned. I did not want the rawness of other people's current experience, but the recollection of emotion in tranquility that proves that even the most terrible of things is susceptible to contemplation, to articulation, to being polished into something which can be held in the hand and recognised. Things being beyond words is the most terrifying state for writers, and when life is unutterably bad, being able to find or borrow words for it means we're not just whirling in the void - there is something, hair-thin though it may be, to try to grasp.
And that is why I am glad I have a room full of books, a head full of books (even those I think I have forgotten) and know where to turn amongst my dead literary friends (as well as my live literary and non-literary friends) when chaos is come again. And it's why I think it is as important to give this to our children as it is to give them food and shelter and love. And it is, after all, why we write.
OK, it wasn't short after all.