Befriending Books

I was going to write an essay about why everyone should read Jane Austen’s novels. I was going to make an impassioned case that her books are not just the smart girl’s romance novels or guides for men seeking to understand the female mind but truly great books, as insightful in their way into the nature of reality and the human soul as Homer or Dante’s poems. But I realized that, in general, the only people persuaded by those arguments (probably the only people who read those arguments) are the people already convinced.

Instead, what to say to the person who wouldn’t read that essay—to the person who says of a book (Austen or otherwise), “Look, I tried. I just couldn’t get into it. Why waste time reading what I know I won’t appreciate? I’ll pick something else that will actually do me some good.” I understand the logic—I’ve used it many times.

We tend to be somewhat utilitarian in our approach to literature. We’re interested in what we can “get out” of books—whether information, a moral vision, a jolt of conviction, or simply entertainment, wish-fulfillment, escape. We generally know which we want at any given time, and before we invest in a book we want to know what the book will deliver. If we find, as we read, that a book is not delivering, we discard it.

None of the above are bad reasons to read. Reading, as a leisure activity, should to some degree be dictated by our desires. But if we think of our literary lives merely in terms of brief encounters that are either worthwhile or not, that either succeed or not, we miss the fact that neither people nor books really work that way. To truly know a person takes a real investment of time, attention, and even affection. People reveal themselves over time in response to curiosity and love. Good books are no different.

I want to make a case that we should think of our relationships with texts as relationships—that we should be in the business of cultivating friendships with books. Since my own most potent experience of literary friendship thus far has been with one of Austen’s novels, I’ll use it as a touchstone. But the way her novels work on a reader over time teaches us how all great texts work. If we bring to our reading the virtues that we bring to friendship—charity, attention, patience, long-suffering—books reward us the way that human friendships reward us: with more than we expected to “get out” of them, with more than we thought to ask for from them—with unanticipated challenge, surprising understanding, unexpected delight.

Mansfield Park was my gateway book to Austen. I read most of it on a plane home for Christmas break in college—a cheap edition I’d picked up somewhere. I can’t remember why I suddenly decided to read it. I hadn’t managed to get through any of Austen’s other novels.

I sympathized—painfully so—with the heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price—with her anxiety and social awkwardness; but I also felt all that was compelling in her rival, Mary Crawford, who is so effortlessly charming. So I was surprised, more than surprised, when Fanny Price got her happy ending. I was deeply touched that Austen would consider this little nobody of a character and her happiness.

It felt like the time when I was six years old playing tag with a bunch of kids and this little girl I barely knew slipped her hand into mine and wanted to be my friend. I remember the sudden glow of heart, the feeling of gratitude. You’re with me?

Many people find Austen’s novels very easy to make friends with. They’re cheerful, they’re witty, and they make you feel intelligent while you read them—like a good friend should. But Mark Twain also spoke for many people when he said of Austen’s novels,

“[H]er books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy … and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time [sic] I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the head with her own shin-bone.”

What I’m most intrigued by is “every time“—by the fact that apparently Twain kept right on trying to read Pride and Prejudice. Was he a glutton for self-punishment? Did someone keep forcing him to make yet another attempt? Or did he find something compelling about it even though he detested it? Was this his grudging attempt to be friends?

My second or maybe third reading of Mansfield Park was for an Austen class in grad school; I wrote a long, rambling paper defending the “villain” of the piece, Henry Crawford, convinced Austen had a soft spot for him because I had a soft spot for him. I wanted the book to say things it didn’t quite say. I felt the novel’s stubbornness, though I wouldn’t acknowledge it. After that paper was finished, I didn’t read the novel again for a while—it had left a bad taste in my mouth.

It’s hard to feel a book or friend set their jaw like a bulldog and resist you. Joseph Conrad addresses the following to readers who “demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed” by his stories:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see …. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

As convicting as these words are, they also give me hope. Eventually, however bad a reader you might be, a book will give you that for which you “forgot to ask.”

The greatest texts are written to require re-reading—that is, to reward our friendship. With any thing of real depth, be it art or human, misunderstanding and inadequate understanding are part of the process of coming to know the thing. And the affection that develops from giving that thing attention over a long period of time likewise transforms the way we see. To read something with love is to read it with new eyes.

You know what moves me deeply about Mansfield Park, even as I write this? The thought of what happens after the novel is over. It’s a novel about mothers, I realize more and more, about a terrible lack of mothers, about a girl who longs for a mother but maybe more deeply than that longs to be a mother and has no one to be a mother to. And when, at the end, Austen with typical Austen reticence just touches on a future, just brushes with her little finger a vision of the future in which this character’s person and story at last blossom into full life, I feel burning behind my eyes and in my throat. Oh my friend. My friend.

When people talked about good books getting better with time, I used to nod and agree without realizing what they meant. I thought you just noticed more things on subsequent readings, or maybe your own life experience contributed to a better understanding. I didn’t realize that a book could become a life-long companion with all that that entails: that it could astonish, disappoint, delight, speak hard words, frustrate, reassure, refuse to talk to you, suddenly speak too much at once, be unpredictable, be steadfast, be a continual, changing object of wonder.