I love books and I love bookstores; especially used bookstores. Besides their calming atmosphere and unique culture, these vanishing venues of society mean so much to me because of what they contain; rows upon rows, aisles behind aisles, and shelves above shelves of books. Throughout my teenage and adult life, Saturdays would find me exploring the bookstores of whatever city I was living in at the time. For me, these explorations used to be a search for another copy of this book or that or a new volume for my library; however over the years I discovered that what I actually was searching for was friendship.
On one particular Saturday, my explorations led me to the third floor of the Strand in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The third floor of this famous institution is devoted to rare books and even rarer first editions. On this day, high above my head, resting on a shelf, encased in leather and board, embossed with faded gold, was a volume entitled The Friendship of Books. I opened its fragile pages and began to read the thoughts of the Reverend F.D. Maurice preserved in this late Victorian printing. His thoughts and the book’s contents forever changed the way I view books and, as a result, changed my life.
In the Victorian London Maurice knew, there was no internet, there were no ebooks, there were only physical books. While we live in a different era, I feel it necessary to say that there is something unique about the physical book, the paperback next to your bed, the hardcover volumes on your shelf. While ebooks have revolutionized reading—Kindles, Nooks, iPads, smartphones have made access to literature ubiquitous—old-school books possess their own qualities worthy of your attention.
The physical book can be cradled in your arms or carried at your side, you can feel the faint breath of the pages as they’re turned before you. Sometimes when a book opens its cover, it offers the embrace of friendship, sometimes it places a hand on your shoulder to give advice, sometimes it’s a punch in your gut to get your attention. Its pages stand ready to absorb your tears when you are moved, or to muffle your laughter or gasps of shock when the unexpected occurs. In short, these books can be truly and fully known.
Maurice observed that each of us tends to hold one of three different views of books. Depending on which view your hold, your life and your intellect can either be diminished or transformed. For our benefit I have updated some of his Victorian era illustrations.
As Inanimate Objects
Maurice’s first observation is that many of us view books as dead, inanimate objects. Inert piles of paper gathering dust in libraries or decorating the shelves of seemingly learned people. I have often seen this view played out on some decorating or home improvement shows, where the designer will decorate a library with a series of books, with the spines facing inward, merely for aesthetic interest. Maurice would decry this as a tragedy and a waste, analogous to asking a surgeon to be a doorman, or using a smartphone as a paperweight. Books are more than sum of their presence on your shelf.
The second view of books Maurice observes is our tendency to view them as enemies. This is slightly better than viewing them as decoration, in that we may acknowledge their value, but we are unwilling to be challenged by their contents. Books, like relationships require work and persistence, but in our laziness we tend to avoid the tasks and sometimes the people that require commitment. Those who view books as enemies, are like those who are constantly full of opinions about books they’ve never read. They quite literally judge a book by its cover, and their life and their intellect is typically all the worse for their ignorance.
Finally, Maurice lands on the last view of books, it is the position he holds, and the one he challenges his readers to adopt; we must view books as friends. To Maurice, books are living, breathing things. In his day, many books were bound in leather, so he saw each book as a collection of thoughts and ideas; dreams and stories wrapped in skin not all that different than each one of us. Books are living extensions of their writers and to know the text is to know the author.
The challenge is to not just be acquainted with books, but to actually develop a relationship with them. Maurice wryly observes that most of us know our pets better than we know the books on our shelves. His challenge to us is for us to move past being acquainted with books, to actually spend time with them and befriend them. Maurice’s paradigm of literary friendship was perfected through his relationship with one book in particular. The one Book whose words actually became flesh and dwelt among us, a living and abiding Word, that opened his heart to true love and his mind to everlasting joy.
Great books, like great friends are not ends in themselves, rather, they link hands with a thousand others and introduce you to a wider world. The value of a book’s friendship is similar to human friendship in that in their presence you are confronted and your convictions are challenged; once you meet them, you can claim that you do not care, but you cannot claim that you do not know. When we open a book, we are returning to the beginning; for we were created for this companionship, to walk with the Word in the cool of the day. Through the companionship of a book we can see the world from another’s eyes and see ourselves in one another. This is one of God’s great gifts to us, for he knows that it is not good for us to be alone.