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How Books Build our Relationships

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.

Earlier this week the Paper Cuts blog posed the question: Can reading work as a group activity? This quickly brought back memories of a book club my college friends and I forged nearly 3 years ago. It was one of those rare summers where time kindly stood still for us as we approached our last year together at school. We had finally let go of the “this is going to be the best summer ever” mantra of years past and welcomed the reprieve of just being. My friends and I landed banal campus jobs, watched Entourage, and for the first time didn’t try to save up for the giant trampoline we had always dreamed of—the thrill of spending half our summer hours in flight suddenly seemed trite. It seemed that our best nights that summer were those we spent happily discussing the highlights of our dormitory canon: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Ishmael, and American Psycho. Perhaps I’m romanticizing, but I can honestly say that reading did work as a group activity for us, but only because the context and chemistry were exactly right.

Paper Cuts questions this idea of “reading as a group activity” by posing the highly commercial “One Book, One Community” paradigm, in which an entire community is encouraged to read the same book and then participate in a hoopla of author events and discussions. In New York City this type of behavior is simply unacceptable; it is not cool to read what everyone else is reading. There are a few rules that any New Yorker who is worried about their intellectual reputation should consider before picking up a book: Vintage and obscure is in. Movie tie-ins, and celebrity biographies are out. It is only okay to read Chelsea Handler in the comfort of your apartment, and The New York Times bestsellers need to have been off the list for at least six months, or at least on the extended list. But while reading is an expression of individuality in the city, we still like to share it. This is why a month ago a friend of mine called to ask, “What the heck happened?” at the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, sparking a two hour long conversation. Or why when I finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I walked (actually took one large skip) over to my co-worker’s cubicle to have a mini celebration for Oscar (if you’ve read the last 10 pages, you know why). We need an outlet for the thoughts and emotions a book inspires, a few people with whom we can share our reactions, but not too many, not more than ten.

And when we can’t share in our experience, we recommend books to each other; I partake in these exchanges daily with friends, co-workers, and strangers alike, constantly adding books to my “mental back burner,” casting the more disingenuous ones aside (Note: Don’t trust anyone who gushes over Nietzsche, or says they couldn’t put War and Peace down.) Sometimes these recommendations end up stewing for great lengths of time. I can still remember two years ago when my roommate Lisa wandered into my room to tell me about a scene she just read in Angels in America, in which two complete strangers meet in the same dream. A couple weeks ago when I read this scene for the first time, I understood why Lisa had to tell me about it. Despite dire circumstances playwright Tony Kushner finds an incredibly beautiful way to bring two lonely and uncharacteristically destined souls together—Prior who is dying of AIDS and Harper, a Valium addict whose husband is finding his way out of the closet. When Harper first meets Prior in their mutual dream, she says, “Deep inside you, there’s a part of you, the most inner part, entirely free of disease. I can see that.” When I was reading Angels in America on the subway, a passenger looked over at me before getting off saying, “I saw that play opening night—incredible.” I opened my mouth to speak, and then he was gone.

Like the magic in the stories they tell, books span space and time to bridge people’s lives and thoughts, the way Angels in America threaded me, my college roommate, and a stranger on the subway. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs have now made this threading virtual. So what does this all mean? A recent post on The Millions pondered the “formative novel,” or the books that contributed to the person you are today. Taking this notion a step further we can ask: What are the books that contributed to the relationships you have today? What books brought you to someone, keep you close to someone, drove you away, or sparked a conversation that has remained indelible in your mind?

I can think of a few of mine (in no particular order): The Awakening, Discipline & Punish, You Shall Know our Velocity!, On Beauty and later The Autograph Man, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and later Lighthousekeeping, When You are Engulfed in Flames, and of course both the Baby-sitters Club and Goosebumps series.

What are some of yours?

Recent Comments

  1. Rebecca

    Books that have built relationships for me: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, The World According To Garp, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Foreskin’s Lament, Marjorie Morningstar, Love Story, The Lorax.
    Oh boy, I could go on and on.

  2. Justin

    i met my stepmom when i was 16-17, and she gave me two books: caleb carr’s the alienist and neil gaiman’s neverwhere. every christmas since has been an exchange of books (confederacy of dunces from her, things fall apart from me). so i guess, one of the most important relationships in my life, started with a very strong literary foundation.

    man, that was sappy.

  3. Cassie

    My earliest book relationships were with my brothers. We’re all big sci-fi/fantasy nerds, so that’s what we passed to each other and what we discussed–endlessly. Ender’s Game was one of the first we passed around, and it’s still one of my absolute favorites. Others were Neuromancer and Wizard of Earthsea, to name a few.

    We still do this, by the way. My older brother came to visit me not too long ago, and his first question was “Can we go by a bookstore? I need you to recommend some more books for me.”

  4. Megan

    I try to read a little of everything specifically so that I can connect with more people.

    At my elementary school, our headmaster would read Pilgrim’s Progress to all 500 of us, all under 13. We’d sit there, quiet, for two hours of reading a week. I’ve never experienced such collective calm, quiet listening.

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