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Rules of Civility

June 24, 2014 | by

Two_Girls_Reading_LACMA_M.68.46.1

Detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Girls Reading, ca. 1890.

Over the weekend, someone asked me how I’d argue for the survival of the print book. I was taken aback; it felt like being asked to defend food against Soylent Green, or sex against the exclusive domain of artificial insemination. But I considered the question carefully, and aside from the obvious arguments, here’s one way I like to think of it.

When I was younger, I used to think setting people up would be sort of like recommending a book you loved: whether or not it worked out, a friend would know you’d tried in good faith to match her tastes and interests, and not hold it against you if you’d gotten it wrong. At best, her life would be enriched; at worst, she’d still be able to recognize what you saw in the other person. In any event, once you’d made the introduction, the arrangement ceased to have anything to do with you.

Instead, I discovered that setting people up is more like recommending a movie—specifically, a comedy. And if a friend doesn’t enjoy—doesn’t get—a comedy you like, somehow both of you feel betrayed, and some small part of you thinks less of the other. And there is the horrible knowledge that the person who dislikes always has the advantage.

Not, mind you, that I’ve done a great deal of matchmaking. My first experiences with it were so off-putting that I swore it off at a pretty young age. It’s not that every attempt was a disaster; one set of friends actually hit it off, and dated for about a year. But that ended up being harder still; the stakes were higher and inevitably, when they split up, my relationship with one of the two grew weaker.

This is as good an argument as I have for the survival of the book: book recommendation is intensely social and inherently civilized. Time spent with a book is almost never time wasted; even those reading experiences that are less than enjoyable are not without value.

The reaction one has to a film or music is often visceral, emotional. While a book can certainly engage emotions—as I write this, A Fault in Our Stars is still heading up the best-seller lists—the experience is always at least partially cerebral. I have sometimes almost hated friends who were wrong (and it really does feel that black and white) about movies; the heated There Will Be Blood fights of 2007 come to mind. I don’t think I have ever had that reaction while disagreeing about a book, and I’ve talked about a lot of books with a lot of people. 

When I was a kid, I had a series of note cards sporting an image of a young girl reading the words, “A Good Book Is a Good Friend.” (Why, yes, I did subscribe to Cricket!) The Internet ascribes these words to a 1901 issue of The Outlook, and tells me that it is part of a longer quote:

“A good book is a good friend. It will talk to you when you want it to talk, and it will keep still when you want it to keep still—and there are not many friends who know enough for that.”

There’s little arguing with that, but I’d go further: a good book facilitates relationships. So does a bad one. After all, even if your friend doesn’t like it, you can just put it back on the shelf. And they’ll both speak to you the next day.

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