A friend was recently telling me about a book he was reading and we both agreed that the author (who is well-traveled, multilingual, knowledgeable, funny, and articulate) would be fun to spend time with in real life. In conversation, I expressed how nice it was to find a good “book friend” to spend time with regardless of real life.
That’s how I generally think about authors or even characters in novels. I love Haruki Murakami, for example, because he describes the world in ways that make it both bigger than it is and also so uncomfortably close and personal. Reading his books, I see my world through his eyes and I learn from it. I enjoy Robert Sapolsky because he’s funny and engaging, which is not always common practice for scientists writing for lay people. In the fiction world, Hermione Granger remains a favorite female protagonist for her unashamed love of books. Importantly for a book character, she rarely disappoints. If there’s a fact to find and a book to find it in, she will.
Book friends, unlike real people in unedited daily existence, are manufactured. They’re predictable, omniscient where appropriate, developed in a certain way to achieve certain ends. They weave bits of plot together into a neat story that is literally bound and sealed. And that’s what makes them safe. That’s what keeps me coming back to books I’ve read before, authors I’ve spent time with, characters I’ve learned to love or hate. Book friends are there to be heard and I’m here to listen.
There’s a feeling of excitement when I read something that is just so perfectly, stunningly, eloquently true. There are passage from books that I highlight, write down, keep track of, and return to over and over. Often I find myself looking to share whatever I’ve just found with someone who will appreciate it as I do. I want to share why I’m so thrilled by what I’ve read or what makes me laugh or cry. I want to share what fills me with awe, dread, or horror. If I’ve learned something new, something that I think is important, I look for people to show it to because it’s too special to keep to myself.
I’m cautious, though, because I see sharing passages from books as an intimate action. I’m handing you a piece of my mind in the form of something that has stood out to me as beautiful, honest, and true. I’m telling you, “This resonates with me.” Sometimes, you haven’t seen that side of me. You didn’t know I was looking for those things, believed that, or had come to such understandings. And here I am, holding out something that excited me and hoping that you’ll accept it, meaning that you will also accept me and who I am, what makes me tick. And I am always hopeful that you’ll return my share with one of your own or with conversation about your own found truths, your own beauties.
But sometimes, the people we share with don’t respond in the ways that we hope they will. Sometimes we try again, we ask again that they take us for who we are. Sometimes they surprise us and they do. And other times, we learn to stop asking.
I admit that I am cautious. I love talking about books and hearing what others are reading, but it takes time to feel comfortable enough sharing so much of myself with anyone else. I want to know you and I want you to know me. But I don’t want to overwhelm you. I don’t want to scare you away. Vulnerability is at the forefront in any interactions when we allow ourselves to be seen by others, but vulnerability comes with a balance. We cannot immediately demand that others see us, hear us, let us breathe. We need to give them time to decide that they want to engage in the same way.
We ask for a lot when we say, “These are the words that are meaningful to me and through them, you see my scars. These are the words that I find true, so I am fragile in showing them to you. And these, these are the words that are dark and unspoken and through them, you see what I keep hidden.”
Thought about like this, sharing books with others is intimate in a way that most shared activities are not. It’s a revealing of oneself, a taking off of clothes of sorts. We are unprotected and therefore vulnerable to whatever might be thrown at us. Sharing our inner lives with one another is an act of courage.
But now you know me. Now you see me. And hopefully, you let me see you.
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