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Have you ever had a friendship over a book?

That’s a good question, I thought, when I encountered that question in this past weekend’s New York Times Book Review, which included two essay responses to this question. (Of course, since it was the New York Times, it asked not about the end of a “friendship” but the end of a “relationship”—but you get the idea!)

I haven’t ever ended a friendship over a book. A dear friend once broke off our friendship with only the briefest explanation and, as I racked my brain for an explanation, I recalled a difference of views about Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street that might have held a clue to her actions. But that difference certainly wasn’t, in itself, the end of the friendship.

And, my husband and I simply can’t understand each other’s principle for organizing books. Since we’ve moved many times, whoever puts up the books in the our newest house vexes the other by putting away the books in a way that the other finds inexplicable. Just last week, I was looking for a book and utterly confounded by my husband’s organizing of our books after our most recent move. These differences in book-organizing principles don’t threaten our marriage, but they do point to a difference in our mental landscapes.

The question of whether or not a disagreement over a book could be friendship-ending is a terrific question because it’s a reminder of how books—and ideas—can be foundations for friendships. A disagreement over a book couldn’t end a friendship if a conversation about a book couldn’t be the start of a friendship.

Of course, it’s the case that in order to make a conversation about a book the beginning of a friendship, people need to read—and to read closely and carefully enough to be deeply engaged by a book.

But, how many young people are seriously engaged by books? Too few.

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson speaks to this when he describes his surprise at the campus scene of a pair of undergraduates who seemed to buck this trend:

There, beneath a classically cast portico, were two students, male and female, having a rip-roaring argument. They were incensed, bellowing at each other, headstrong, confident, and wild. It struck me how rarely I see this kind of full-out feeling in students anymore.

The punch line to Edmundson’s story is that these two students were merely actors in a role-playing game—not a heartening example of young people truly engaged with ideas and books.

Too many young people leave college behind without having been moved by a book. One of my friends tells a story about convening a meeting of new hires, mostly recent college graduates, and proposing that they introduce themselves by mentioning a book they were reading. The first young person to introduce himself couldn’t think of a book, commenting something like, “I’m not much of a reader,” and he was echoed by many of the others—also recent graduates—who couldn’t offer a book that they’d been reading. Imagine, a whole room of recent grads who couldn’t name a book of interest to them!

The friends from my college days with whom I’m still in touch are those whom I’d meet for cards and conversation after our philosophy classes. More serious disagreements about books—especially of the “rip-roaring” kind—would bring about deeper and more lasting friendships. Perhaps a few friendships would end over a book—but it would be a sign of a friendship serious and deep enough to have had something at stake.


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