Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
Bookish Diversions: Can Books Be Friends?
What Is a Book? Books as Companions, What We Learn from Books, One Strange Instructor, More
¶ What is a book? Amazon launched its Kindle ebook reader in 2007, which launched publishers into a tense period that challenged assumptions about the essential nature of their work. It may be hard to believe all these years later, but “What is a book?” became a vital question, one publishers asked themselves urgently, constantly, naggingly.
One of the worst answers? “Content.” I was in the industry at the time (vice president of editorial and acquisitions at Thomas Nelson) and resisted this answer whenever it came up. If we were mere “content providers,” we were no different than magazines, video production companies, or a dozen other outlets and businesses; it was common to hear book publishing unhappily—but inevitably—compared to iTunes. Against this trend, I insisted we didn’t produce content. Rather, we produced immersive reading experiences, regardless of format.
I wasn’t the only one. At the time publisher James Bridle wrote of the book “not a [as] physical thing, but a temporal one.”
Its primary definition, its signal quality, is the time we take to read it, and the time before it and the time after it that are also intrinsic parts of the experience: the reading of reviews and the discussions with our friends, the paths that lead us to it and away from it (to other books) and around it.
While the debate the prompted Bridle’s answer is now long over, I return to his observation here because it helps answer an interesting question: Can a book be a friend? Given that spending time with someone is a precondition for forming friendship, I’d say yes.
One of the key characteristics of reading is immersive exposure to the thoughts of someone else. Sometimes that exposure is disagreeable; we’re less likely to develop friendships with such books. But other books echo our own thoughts, enliven new ideas, and awaken us to different possibilities in the world. Such books provide companionship beyond our initial reading.
¶ We don’t consume books; we engage them. St. John’s College tutors Zena Hitz and Mary Elizabeth Halper elaborate on the book-as-friend question, exploring what a relationship with a book and its author might entail. The idea of spending time in the presence of another person’s thougths forms part of their consideration. Says Hitz,
The author must be part of what’s making it such a rich experience. It’s not just that there are words and images on the page. It’s that someone was using those to communicate. The reason why it doesn’t feel silly to say you can be friends with a book the way that it does to say you can be friends with a particular wine or a box of chocolates—you can’t be friends with those things; you’re just consuming them. . . . But there’s something about the human being on the other end of the book who’s trying to communicate with you. That seems to really matter.
Returning to certain books to prolong the conversation also seems to matter. Augustine’s Confessions is like that for me. Same with Montaigne’s Essays. We don’t consume books; we engage with them as we engage with people. They are, after all, one thread of another’s life and thought incarnate in a form designed to transcend their physical, spatial, and temporal limitations. Montaigne is long gone, but Montaigne is with me now in my library nevertheless, and he could be with you in yours if he’s not already.
If you find yourself thinking about books as books, along with their strange and vibrant powers, I recommend Hitz and Halper’s conversation.
¶ What a book can teach us. It’s easy to think that books teach us in the didactic sense. Of course they do. Authors write to inform. But they also write to entertain, enthrall, and enrage. Along with strictly pedagogical texts, we can learn through fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction. The thoughts and actions of the characters themselves invite and prompt a special form of learning.
Because books capture human experience they invite us to imagine ourselves within those same experiences. And since we can’t possibly imagine every possible experience humans might have, books naturally broaden our sense of the world and what happens within it. Ideas and emotions to which we have little access become, in a moment, accessible thanks to the potential friend in our hand (or earbuds).
And there’s more. Brain regions activate when reading fiction in ways similar to when acting in real life, ultimately creating the preconditions for deepened empathy. “Reading fiction,” says Jeannie Kidera,
lights up the brain in ways that mimic the neural activities of the experience you’re reading about. . . . When reading fiction, you can, to some degree, experience the experiences of others, getting you neurologically one step closer to an understanding necessary for empathy.
These neurological changes can be lasting. When we read an engaging narrative, according to Emory psychology professor Gregory Berns, we participate in the story and create memories of the experience that can fuse our self-concept with the actions of the characters. A composite portion of our cortex, the sensorimotor strip, retains those impressions and helps fold the described actions and what they meant to us into our identities—identities from which we act in the real world after reading. We vicariously cooperate with the characters we encounter, learning to see the world through their eyes, and we then function in terms of those discoveries.
¶ How a philosopher would put it.
We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.
—Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge
¶ One strange teacher. Beyond the Confessions and the Essays, I could introduce you to many books who are friends of mine. One is Laurus by the Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin. Here’s the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, giving a brief talk on the book and describing the countercultural ways in which it might expand our sense of how to live in a world of tragic circumstances.
¶ What books do you count as friends? Share one or two in the comments.
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