Once, on a breezy day, I met a woman in a small bookstore after a reading. She looked to be somewhere in her sixties. She told me that she had just lost her husband. She said she had never been a big nonfiction reader but that her husband had loved history books and biographies.
“In his last years, though, he was in too much pain to concentrate on reading,” she told me. “He kept starting books but couldn’t finish them. When he died, he left a big stack of books by his bed, all with bookmarks. Some of those books he had barely started. Others he’d almost read to the end.” She paused and then continued, “After he died, I didn’t know what to do. But then I figured it out. I decided to finish those books for him. I’m reading them, one at a time, start to finish. He couldn’t, so I will.”
Just because he was gone, she told me, his reading didn’t need to go with him. She read those books because she loved him; she read because she still could; she read because it helped her remember him.
Books and people are bound together. I can’t think about certain books and not about certain people, some living and some dead. The joy I’ve had from these books and from these people, and all I’ve learned from them, merge into one stream in my mind.
We can’t do much for the people we’ve lost, but we can remember them and we can read for them: the books they loved, and books we think they might have chosen. Maybe the read- ing can help us answer the questions they would have asked us if they were still here to ask them. Maybe the reading can help us figure out how to honor their lives and continue their legacies. And maybe the reading itself can help us answer one of the biggest questions we can ask ourselves: Why are we here at all?