Richard Weber: Keeping company with books
Except for a living man, there is nothing more companionable than a book. It makes the deepest solitude seem almost sociable and it gives you a real sense of being in touch with other people. I never feel quite alone when I am reading a book.
Socializing with a book is an art that comes in handy now that travel restrictions and social distancing has made it more difficult for us to meet face to face with our friends and family.
Montaigne said that books are “a resource against calamity”, and the covid-19 crisis certainly counts as a calamity. Books can’t solve all the problems created by pandemic, but they can help to alleviate some of the stress, loneliness and boredom that many of us are experiencing.
Of course, books can do much more than serve as “a resource against calamity”. They are a magic key to adventure. They can transport you instantly through time and space and take you places you could never imagine going in real life.
They look so inert and lifeless sitting up there on a shelf, but to John Milton books were as lively as the “living intellect that bred them”. He didn’t think of them as being “absolutely dead things”, for books have the power to affect us in much the same way as living people do.
Books are portals into the world of other lives. The words written in them are as authentically direct as the words spoken by the friend you are conversing with, and they often reveal much more about people than you can ever get out of an actual conversation.
Our social network is limited to a few hundred people. If you are an avid reader you can easily increase that to several thousand. Books not only expand your social network, they put you in touch with some of the greatest minds that ever lived.
Who of us would not love to sit down and have a conversation with some of the greats of history who are no longer with us? For me it would be people like Aristotle, Copernicus, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to name a few.
But you see, none of these people are really gone, for they live on in the books they wrote. They are still sitting up there on the shelf, waiting to continue the dialogue. To have that conversation all you have to do is open a book and read it.
Perhaps the greatest value of books is that they provide an instrument of expanded vision; they let us see farther into the world than we could see without them. When we read books written by great men we are standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton said of his own accomplishment.
Books expand the boundaries of the world around us, and also of the world within. You can find out a lot about yourself by reading a book. The best books are full of wisdom and good advice, and if read critically they can lead us out of the labyrinth of superstition, prejudice and misinformation.
Groucho Marx once said: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read.” Groucho had a unique way of expressing the importance of reading.
Books are brimming with humanity. They carry us on a journey through the wide world of human thought and emotion. They make us laugh and cry. They console, entertain, teach, stimulate, charm, encourage and inspire us. They challenge us to become more than we are, and they are faithful as any friend can be. And they will stick with you for life.
Cultivating that kind of friendship could turn out to be one of the best things you ever did.