We Read for Community (...and a Giveaway!)
"There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books."
Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for The Defence
I started writing this post at least half an hour ago. But my sister is in Oxford for a bit and as we sit across from each other at this battered old coffee shop table, attempting to study, we cannot resist stopping every few seconds to, you guessed it, share a little sliver of some tasty gem we've just read. She's up to her eyeballs in Charles Taylor and when she reads me a quote, I have to stop and listen with all my attention because A Secular Age tends to challenge the way you see the world. I'm reading her the bits of Hannah Coulter I quoted in Book Girl or the passage of Kant I'm just beginning to wrestle through in my study of modern doctrine. Back and forth we pass these words. As they kindle and form us, we share them, and as we savor them together, we are knit, ever closer, into our kinship as sisters, as friends, as readers.
We Clarkson sisters read, you see, for community. We read because shared words expand our worlds together, they knit us close in vision and belief, they give us a community not only of place and body, but of inward sight and hope. It's why Thomas and I read together in our marriage - novels and theology, essays we want to discuss. It's why my Mom and I discuss what books we're reading when we grab our coffee times each week in amidst work and baby and all the bustle of living. Reading is one of the great forces of friendship in our life.
Community is the third gift I hope that my Lilian, and the readers of Book Girl will discover as they foray into the reading life. To read a book is to enter a companionship of imagination; it is, first, to encounter the mind of another in the book in your hands, to have your vision of the world enlarged by fellowship with the author. But reading is also a means of connection, a way of sharing life and insight, dreams and ideas, that offers a rich and beautiful way to come close in soul to another person.
I can't say it any better than I wrote it in Book Girl, so this week I'll share an excerpt from Chapter 7, 'Books Can Foster Community' (and shall now turn to Joy who is waiting to read me another quote):
"It was the summer after I’d turned twenty, and I was perched on one of the creaky white rocking chairs on my family’s front porch in Colorado with my “little” (both over six feet) brothers beside me. In true Clarkson tradition, we’d decided to read a novel aloud during our summer at home. But we felt a little trepidatious, the scuffles of siblinghood and competition lurking at the edges of anything we did, all complicated by the newly adult selves we had become. We felt slightly strange to each other, our emerging maturity, our growing dreams the secrets that sat on the edge of our tongues too new and dear to articulate, too strong in us for ease. But we settled in bravely, cups of hot chocolate in hand, as I began the perilous tale of Peace Like a River, a book whose pastoral title belies its drama of asthmatic boys and cowboy-poet little girls, of miracles and murder.
Day after day we returned, immersed in the story, comrades in the shared space of imagination. As we voiced the vivid characters, marveled at the word craft of the author, and laughed at the fierce loves and wild creativity of the little girl, Swede, we were set in a unique camaraderie of experience that loosened our tongues, revealing us to each other. We argued over the choices of the characters, debated the bold actions of Davy, and shared the quiet of a character’s death. In those spaces we saw one another anew, discovered one another afresh, as compelling as any characters a novel ever offered. We recognized each other as unique as the book drew out our individual ideas, and yet we were connected together as the story pulled us into a shared language of experience, a shared understanding of what is right and good as imaged in the beauty of the novel’s end. In the hush of the final word, the closed cover, with the first autumn leaves in their turn on the aspens around us, we knew ourselves woven together anew, bound as friends and siblings by the power of a shared story.
I discovered afresh in that moment that a woman who reads is a woman who relates. A book girl knows that a shared book is a ground of mutual discovery, a space in which the soul and thoughts of another may open to her in a wondrous way. Just as a week’s stay with a friend can bring you closer than any number of coffee dates or run-ins, the sharing of a story accelerates the comradeship of souls. When people inhabit a realm of imagination or theology or poetry together, their own realms of soul and spirit are revealed to the others who sojourn with them in that place. Reading, when shared, begins a conversation that breaks down the barriers of isolation and connects us, one to another, as we exclaim, in C. S. Lewis’s description of friendship in his book, The Four Loves, “What! You too?”1
I sometimes wonder if the stock image of a reader is of an introvert curled up in a curtained window seat. There is definitely truth (and, I’d argue, delight) in that image, but one of the strongest impressions that comes to me when I reflect on what reading has created in my life is the image of fellowship and the widened horizon of relationship. This was a reality I first knew in my own family. Our sibling summer of reading as young adults was a chosen return to a pattern we had learned in childhood. My parents read to us morning and night, we read novels before bedtime, we read devotions in the morning, and we read picture books or adventure tales in the afternoon. The culture of our home was shaped in large part by the stories we shared, and my parents saw this as one of the formative ways in which they created a ground for us to know each other not just as siblings but as friends.
That pattern of shared story and relationship is one whose power I have experienced throughout my adult life; it is one of the rela- tional tools that my introverted self knows can always create space for friendship in whatever new place I sojourn. In my time at Oxford, I’ve watched as a poetry group started by my tutor turned a group of shy theology students into talkative friends who revealed aston- ishing things about their own lives in their comments on the lumi- nous poetry we read aloud together. I’ve watched a group of disparate students—young professionals, singles, and couples, all dogged by the hurried loneliness of the academic or working life—coalesce as a community over a shared weekly meal and read-aloud surprise in our home, each member taking a turn to bring something to read to the group. And let’s be honest, I knew that things with my husband-to-be might just work out when I saw books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and Chaim Potok on his bachelor shelves. We had been dating only two weeks when I got the chance to peek at his books. I knew it would be telling: student rooms in Oxford are so tiny, there’s room for only a few absolute favorite or necessary titles—if, of course, you are the kind of person who loves your books enough to lug them with you all over the world. And what if Thomas wasn’t? The door opened, and my eyes shot toward the shelves. There in splendid promise stood a fat volume of The Lord of the Rings, with a slim copy of Lewis wedged close by and a bevy of other familiar titles stacked beside them. I sighed in relief. He’d passed the test—on several levels. (And our two copies of The Lord of the Rings, one in Dutch and one in English, now have pride of place on our living room bookshelves.)"
...continued in Book Girl!
May you discover the force that a shared story can be in the formation of friendship, in the knitting together of family, in the comfort of knowing that books help you to know you are never alone.