Books as Friends

So, we’ve recently moved. Across the continent, really. (Hence the noticeable absence of posts by me.) It is, as Haley reminds me, only temporary and we already have our return tickets back to Minnesota. But in the meantime, our little family is happily ensconced in an old San Francisco row house – yes, it does sort of look like the house in Full House, for readers of a certain age – and doing our best to make “home” in a new space.

We’ve left our friends behind on the frozen tundra. And while my husband and I have friends and family out here, my kids don’t. Well, family of course, but not friends. At least, not the flesh-and-blood variety. But a few made it on the airplane with us and are already populating our house: Frances is here, and Curious George, and Trixie, and the Cat in the Hat – and yes, alas, Brother and Sister Bear too. (I have grudgingly made my peace with my daughter’s love of the Berenstain Bears. I loved them, too, at her age.) These characters are keeping my daughter company, in very real ways: they show up in her play, her imagining, and her questions to me. And I have several more, to whom I’ve been waiting to introduce her, sitting on the shelf: Mowgli, and Piglet, and the ancient Mesopotamians.

Okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch.

But here’s the point. When I taught Humane Letters to twelfth graders, I always started the year with a lecture on why Books Are Our Friends. We – that is, between 12 and 18 seventeen-year-old girls and I – were about to spend a year together doing nothing but reading, discussing what we read, and writing about the same. Their homework was generally an hour of reading a night. We made our way through Augustine, Luther, Dante, Montaigne, Descartes, Hegel, Dostoevsky, and a bunch of others too. This is a lot of reading. I wanted the girls to understand that this wasn’t a mere academic imposition. Rather, if they were going to be spending this much time with these folks, they might as well make friends with them. And honestly, can you think of better companions with which to spend your time?

In particular, I always harped on how reading isn’t a solitary activity – it is always relational. Someone has something to tell you. They really, really want you to understand. You read, and listen, and learn, and after doing your level best to understand what an author has to say, you start a conversation with them. It’s not in person, of course, unless you’re very lucky. But it’s a conversation nonetheless. In the most blessed of circumstances – a seminar room, a fantastic book group – you get to carry on this conversation with other people who are reading, too. And at the end of it all, you’re not the same person who picked that book up a couple of weeks ago. If we read well, we are changed.

And isn’t that how friendship works, too? If we are present, attentive, and engaged with our friends, we are changed. We hear them, we try to understand them, we converse and sometimes argue with them – and we are different people because of it. Books might not be there to give us a hug when we’re crying (but we can close them when they’re being annoying!). Still, when we relate to them well, we forge a kind of friendship with them. And with the best of books, this friendship, the companionship of the author and the characters, can last all of our days.

Watching my daughter and the dear friendship she has with her books has been instructive to me. What I had to lecture 12th-graders about, she knows intuitively. My prayer in response to this is twofold. In the first place, this relationship with books drives much of my book selection.  If my children are going to embark on lasting friendships with these books, they had better be a) worthwhile, and b) capable of standing up, over time, to a young child’s affectionate imagination. I pray that I will find and select the best companions to their young imaginations.

Secondly, I am sadly aware of how much the 17-year-olds in my classroom needed to hear my little spiel. Something happened between their four-year-old selves pretending to run away with Frances and their almost-grownup selves seeing Augustine as impossibly distant and irrelevant. Whatever that something is, I pray that I can help my kids avoid it. Or at least keep enough wonder and literary companionship alive that they don’t need some overeager young teacher to preach at them about it.

Another post for another time, of course, is about my own and Haley’s ongoing literary companions. I think I need to put that one in the works right away!


7 thoughts on “Books as Friends

  1. My nearly-2-year-old is well on her way to forging friendships with book characters, which makes me so happy. Her current favorite is Gossie (Olivier Dunrea) and she LOVES that duck and her bright red boots. Next up: Augustine and Dostoevsky!

    Also, please do not look at the current temp in the Twin Cities. You might never come back.

    • Ha: I did happen to notice the temperature in Minnesota. And San Francisco frankly is more civilized this time of year. I’d forgotten what it feels like to get enough Vitamin D.

      We only just met Gossie, when we got a copy for Christmas. She’s charming! As far as Augustine and Dostoevsky — well, I had to restrain myself from checking out an illustrated collection of Shakespeare for the four year old today. It was a bit much. But I so wanted to give it a try…

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