My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

13 thoughts on “My Best Friends

  1. Julia Smucker

    I can relate to so much of what you’ve said here. One of the reasons I frequently name for my preference for physical books over electronic ones is margin notes, but I think it goes beyond that. The conversation I have with a book in its margins is a central part of what can only be described as a kind of relationship. And I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who imagines books conversing with each other while arranging them on the shelf.

  2. Cathi Beattie

    Hey Vance, we experience the same book overload here: but we’ve spent years now weeding out about a hundred books each year–and Bruce has begun to embrace his Kindle. (And I, too, bring a book everywhere, rarely engaging folks in conversation while I’m waiting for an appointment, while Bruce will come back knowing the “backstory” of everyone else there.) I’m wondering if a sentence was left out towards the end. I copy-pasted that section here:
    “But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my…”

  3. vancemorgan

    You’re right, Cathi–I caught the messed up sentence last evening and corrected it. The difference between Bruce and you at an appointment is the same as the difference between Jeanne and me. She comes back from her frequent airplane flights with stories of fabulous conversations she’s had with strangers. I have no such stories–but I get a lot of reading done!

  4. Bill Baddeley

    I’ve tried reading on computer screens, on my telephone, other people’s e-readers. My computer science colleagues, years ago, developed things like clever electronic/mechanical page turners that could tell the difference between a single page and a “riffle” through the pages of an electronic book, trying to translate the experience of book reading to electronic devices. But when I look at the books sitting in the case next to me I recall where and when I found each of them, when I first read them, some of the insights and arguments they provided, and conversations about them. Their physical presence and appearance on the shelf is well beyond anything I’ve seen anyone even try with electronic displays (and I’ve looked). And let’s not even talk about “annotations” without recalling your essay on the contrast between your student’s new copy of the text and your own heavily marked copy. My children aren’t likely to tussle over the disposition of most of my library, but it’s heartening to find on their shelves books they borrowed from us over the years, or copies they acquired themselves. I’m fully sympathetic with travelers, having made many long journeys by airplane with collections of books. I fly less frequently now, but I still carry a collection of books despite their weight and volume. I look for the independent book stores in cities I visit, and always find books that I hadn’t heard of and take them away with me. Amazon in all its comprehensive glory still falls short of presenting the riches of books as well as Powell’s, or Blackwell’s, or the Harvard Book Store, or university book stores, or the humbler but still engaging book stores in smaller towns and cities, or the public and private libraries. And reading a book, turning its pages and looking back, adding a note (without prelude or disruption), the physicality of the book — its character as we both age, the chance meeting of an old friend on a shelf, the ability to arrange books in conversational groups: these are hard to emulate or adequately replace with electronics. Will a Walter Benjamin of the future write an essay on “Unpacking My Kindle Library” or a future Alberto Manguel write “The E-Book Collection at Night?”

    1. vancemorgan

      I worry (sometimes) that commitment such as yours and mine to the glories of the printed word is a reflection of our age more than anything else. I must say that it has been a LONG time since I encountered a student that exhibited anything like the beginning of reverence for books and libraries. I’m glad that I am old enough that I will not need to teach in the entirely electronic university world that apparently is coming.

      1. Bill Baddeley

        I agree. I was enthralled by the NY Public Library on 42nd Street and the Library of Congress reading room at an impressionable age, and never quite caught up with modern times. I have several reservations about electronic books: the technology; the motivations of the market masters; the gap between the vast printed catalog and the electronic one; the loss of the unique contributions of the publishers, independent book stores, and libraries. The printed book has a low entry price and wonders you’ve described above. But the costs and side effects of printing and distributing paper books are significant, and it’s more a question of how and not whether the shift to electronic books will develop. This morning’s NY Times includes a scathing review of a proposed architectural renovation of the NY Public Library, removing the stacks, moving the books to New Jersey and using the space for a spacious and airy branch library “less intimidating” than the main library. A principal benefit of electronic books is that they are available instantly — not the next day by truck from New Jersey. We’ll find ways to enjoy the gains and live with the losses.

  5. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Just yesterday, free from any 4th of July midday activities, I settled into the sofa with an actual book. Although I am in possession of many ebooks, there is nothing to replace an actual book in one’s hands in my opinion.

    Later in the day, my husband and I (he an introvert and not particularly bookish, me an extrovert with so many books) stood in the doorway to our guest room. He looked at the room, filled with bookcases and as well as piles of unshelved books, and looked at me. I sighed and said that while some natural culling could occur, we needed more bookcases.

    My parents were pretty challenged in numerous ways, but one huge gift that they gave to me was a love of reading. When they were not fighting, they were reading – and so as a young child, reading equaled a kind of peace and harmony. And when I say reading, it meant the books themselves, with covers, and pages, and smells all their own. As I grew older and could read, when they fought, I found refuge in my own books. They were my friends and dear companions!

    That’s why some of those books in our guest room are so vital to me – books that I owned as a child, along with books that belonged to my parents. It makes me sad, despite my own participation in the move, to think of a world void of printed paper and books.

    The thought of your floor to ceiling bookcases elicits quite a sense of envy in me! And your passages about the arrangement of your books will make me smile as I ponder this myself, during subsequent rearrangements. All that and I get the real gift of looking around that guest room thinking of all my dear friends who are staying there.

    Thanks for this lovely post.

  6. Mary Thomas Wilkins

    I’m mostly with you on all of the above. Still prefer a real book so I can mark it up and lend it, flip back and forth easily to figure out something I missed, etc…The one thing a Kindle is good for in my experience is reducing my carpal tunnel syndrome. Holding a print book can really be painful. Most of the time, I read good old-fashioned print books. When I went for a medical appointment recently, I was one of the few with one in my hand.

  7. Sandra Keating

    When I first visited the Benedictine library at Melk (I think that is picture at the end of the blog?), I wanted to live there. Now, I think I’m going to try to retire there!

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