Thursday, October 16, 2014

Making Friends Through Books

What can be better than reading a good book? When we are caught up in a story or narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, we are infused with thoughts that originated with someone else. A fresh breeze of interest blows through our minds and dusts the cobwebs that tend to accumulate when we are in our normal round of activities and interactions. The stimulation of our imaginations refreshes, renews, and rejuvenates us. Sometimes, we become so involved in our current book we have to battle the temptation to neglect our responsibilities; we find ourselves eager to talk about the latest book and share our thoughts about it with anyone whom we think might give us an ear. Having a good book on hand is like having a mini vacation within our day even if we can only snatch a couple of minutes out of our routine here and there.

What is better than this? Reading books not by ourselves, but with friends - or even strangers. When we discover someone else has read the same book we are reading, we have an instant connection, something to talk about other than the weather. The shared characters and circumstances of a novel are like meeting someone who knows a member of your family, or like having mutual friends. Being able to talk about a book carries you beyond the superficial and often leads to discoveries that normal conversations do not disclose.

In addition to acknowledging the delights of reading, or meeting others who do, my hope is to encourage you to be even more deliberate about sharing books with others. Why not join a book discussion group, or even begin one yourself. Many people wish they read - not just more, but read at all, and only need the incentive of an invitation to join you to make it a priority. When you offer to host a group, you are doing something this world sorely needs and craves: offering friendship.

I know, I know, I can hear you sighing. Who in the world has time for one more thing? My simple answer is, busy people. We all manage to squeeze in some social engagement from time to time no matter how hectic our week has been. I think leading a group like this is one of the easiest obligations you can make. There is no need to put in hours of preparation. Just read the book (already noted as a delightful endeavor). As you read, occasionally jot down a thought you have, or a question that arises from reading that you would like to ask someone. People who have read a book will have plenty to say about it, especially in company with others, and if you lead such a group you will likely have more trouble reigning in the conversation than keeping it going.

I must confess that I have resisted being in "book clubs" myself for reasons of guarding my time, as well as from the idea that I did not need one. After all, I'm a reader. I arrogantly considered them a waste of time.

But I realized there was more to it than this. Besides, hospitality is a command from scripture, right? If you can't open your living room or kitchen a few times a year, even arranging a room at a local restaurant can show others how much you value them. If you're too busy to bake, buy a snack, or ask folks to bring something along to share if they can.

So go ahead. Ask a friend or acquaintance, or two, if they'd be interested. When you do, ask them what they wish they could read if they had the time. Be prepared with a few suggestions for possible titles, and choose a variety of very different kinds of books to find out what appeals to them.

Last winter, feeling as strongly as I do about wanting this culture to be more involved with literature, I made a few calls to some friends I hadn't seen in a long time, casually mentioning the possibility of my having a book club. The response was immediate and positive. Encouraged by this, I made a date and suggested we talk about a book I knew had been popular of late (Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield). When we met, we talked about that one, but also mulled over what reading goals we had. In this small group of four, we acknowledged that there were many "classic" books on our shelves that we had always wanted to read, but hadn't ever gotten around to, and that if we were reading together, that might spur us on. Classics, after all, are classics for a reason.

We have been meeting all year anywhere from every four to 10 weeks, depending on the season and the difficulty of the book. Flexibility with the scheduling helps to keep members committed. Now, nine months later, we have 12 regularly attending, ranging in age from 18 to early sixties.

From the beginning, I was rewarded not just with fellowship with others, but by their willingness to be vulnerable. Each book stirs up each individual in different ways and some members have shared insights they have gotten for their daily life. Fahrenheit 451 led to realizations about the importance of what we were doing in forming this group and disciplining ourselves to make time to read; Silas Marner pricked our consciences about personal prejudices and unwillingness to love our neighbors sacrificially; The Scent of Water shed light on our place in our families and small community.

But everyone balked when Bleak House by Charles Dickens was proposed as the next book. No way could they read 800-900 pages. Some refused to consider it. I asked them to think about the fact that they had already read more than that in the preceding five months. Could we not try to read the first third of the book for the next meeting in six weeks before deciding whether to continue? So they tried. And they got hooked. I did suggest they jot down the characters on their bookmarks to keep track of the overabundance of them they would be meeting and re-encountering throughout the saga.

At our last meeting, we had finished it and everyone was thrilled - not to be done, but that they had persevered. It took us four months to read it in portions. I had a hard time ensuring everyone got a chance to share, they were bursting. One young mother admitted how the book had convicted her about her entire parenting style. Others were challenged by the deep humility of the heroine. Still another was inspired to think of the immensity and perfection of God's sovereign work in the lives of so many people. Everyone wants to read it again.

It's not always deep wisdom or profound insights we discuss. Much of the time we just laugh our heads off, and, sides aching, we go home nourished, strengthened and full of something most people live without much of the time, that thing they miss as they unquestioningly carry on a "normal" lifestyle with its absorption in work and school and personal pursuits. That thing they miss is not only reading, but relationships.

I love the friends I meet in books and want others to have those same friends, but more than that, I love the friends I make through sharing literature together. Friendship is definitely worth the time and books are good friendship builders.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Just had our book club on Jan Karon's newest Mitford book: Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. Then we were talking about Eric Metaxas being in town, so next book is Bonhoeffer. Two recents books means the following read is to be old!

  2. Book clubs are the best! Mine also read Butterfield's Secret Thoughts a few years ago, and we just finished Eliot's Middlemarch, for which I sadly missed the discussion. I'm up next to pick something to read over December and January, and I am having quite the time deciding. I'd love it to be a story where Christmas features prominently (at least for a chapter or two), that is not too dismal for the deep winter, and that is also eminently discussable (-ible?). Might you have any recommendations? Thanks in advance!

    1. Christina,

      Christmas is most wondrous in children's books. Maybe something in the children's department would be the light and refreshing breeze for your club. Of course, there is the Christmas in Little Women, but I also love the Christmases in the Ralph Moody books, especially Man of the Family. There is also the lovely Christmas celebration in City of
      Bells by Elizabeth Goudge, which has some children in it who play a part, but is a book for adults.


    2. Thank you so much for these suggestions! Elizabeth Goudge has been recommended to me from many quarters lately, so perhaps I'll go with that. I love the Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton, but it seems a little young for a grownup book group; plus I can't remember much in it to discuss.

    3. Oh, and the obvious Goudge I considered after sending that was The
      Dean's Watch, which has a huge climactic Christmas at the end.