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Good Books, Community, and Real Investment of Time

January 25, 2019


I’ve been a part of three long-haul book clubs so far: Middlemarch, Kristin Lavransdatter, and (presently) The Brothers Karamazov. Together with a group of anywhere from six to forty friends (and friends of friends) we’ve been working through these classics over five or six months. We set up a group on Facebook, so we can discuss as we read (always careful not to touch on plot beyond this week’s section).

It’s a pleasure to get to read great books in good company, but, of late, I’ve been particularly grateful for our book clubs because they give me something to share with friends—something utterly divorced by what might otherwise comprise our only shared reading: the latest story in the frenetic news cycle.

Our friendships are built out of the experiences we share and the loves we invite each other into. In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken’s memoir of his marriage and his and his wife’s conversions, Vanauken describes how he and Davy planned to knit themselves together by sharing everything they loved with each other.

“Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that…our trust in each will not only be based on love and loyalty but on the fact of a thousand sharings—a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.”

The Vanaukens called this their Shining Bond, and they meant to build it out of everything either of them loved, assuming there must be something good in anything if it had attracted one of the pair (St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle would caution them that we act in pursuit of perceived goods, but our perceptions may be wrong).

They were right in assuming they should create their bond out of good things, worthy of being loved. But, when we aren’t deliberate, we can find that our Shining Bond with our friends has been built by happenstance, on whatever happened to ensnare us both, not on what we would choose, on reflection, to give our lives to. We lose the chance to be like the person in Matthew 7:24 who builds his home on solid rock, but rather end up more like the one who builds on sand.

I’m grateful for our shared reading, because it lessens the temptation to let Twitter set the topic of conversation for our family dinner table or when I catch up with friends. Instead, my husband and I try to synchronize our progress through each week’s assigned reading, so that when he gets home from work, we’re both up to date on the latest doings of Mary Garth (the best!), Erlend (the worst!), or Dmitri (oh no…).

We’re drawn into a different kind of urgency, like the American readers of Dickens who were so desperate for the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop that they surged to the docks to ask the sailors on the latest ship from England, “Does Little Nell die?”

There’s a real pleasure in sharing a story with a friend, and it’s that longing for fellowship, along with baser impulses, that suggests we should keep opening social media, keep working to stay part of the conversation. There’s much too much good TV, so the current news loop is the story we can be most confident our friends are invested in.

It’s also the reason that people my age keep reaching for Harry Potter as a common point of reference, despite the complaints that we should #readanotherbook. There isn’t another book we can be as confident our interlocutor has read. Even my husband and I, enrolled in the same Western Civ survey course in our respective freshmen years, find the curriculum changed slightly in the four years that separated our experiences. (He got Borges, I got Bovary.)

Until relatively recently in American history, our literary lingua franca would have simply been the Bible—the King James Version by default. Robert Alter catalogued how deeply the text permeated the culture in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Every Sunday, we hear readings from the Scripture, and they are an invitation to further meditation, either in contemplative prayer alone or in fellowship with friends. We share our readings with every other Catholic we know.

I’ve also deeply enjoyed being drawn into the shared texts and prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, especially when praying the Office of Readings. I can let myself become dulled to parables I think I know, but the Office of Readings, drawing from the whole history of the faith, from the Church Fathers to recent papal documents, frequently startles me. And then I message a friend, who I know prays the Office too, to ask for prayers, discuss the readings, or simply as the starting point for a broader conversation.

The more I let God’s Word be the story that connects me with my friends, the better my chance of looking over the rest of my reading habits and conversational fodder and asking his question, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2).