I’m curious. I know that we (this little circle of bloggers) live in a bubble of books – that goes without saying. The “books” section of this blog is the most frequently updated. But for anyone who enjoys reading: how often do we participate in the ritual of sharing books, recommending stories and swapping our all-time favourites?
I’ve enjoyed this rite for as long as I can remember reading. In fact, many of my memories of new discoveries are those that have been gifted to me by my pals and my family. People who share that enthusiasm for reading have always surrounded me. “Duh, you did two degrees in English Literature!” But here’s the thing. I’m drawn to people who are curious, and those who spring to mind aren’t necessarily graduates in Literature. They’re clever, and inquisitive, and full of exuberant opinion. I hold so many memories dear to me when I think about the books I have been recommended, and those books will intrinsically be linked with that person in my mind.
I remember my good friend from high school (who by all accounts detested our English classes) was an avid reader. Perhaps she shied away from the “classics” which I immersed myself in, but she was the first to recommend contemporary books to me. These were the books that I would never have taken the time to read, being the literature snob that I am, and yet, they have proven to be some of the most evocative novels I have ever read. She lent me We Need To Talk About Kevin when it first caused ripples on the book scene. I remember it vividly, not only because I could not put it down, because it was so addictive, but also because I spent the majority of that book nestled in bed with it propped on my knees. Inexplicably, every time I shifted to get myself a drink or take a loo break, I had to brush crumbs off my bed. “Disgusting habit, eating in bed.” I thought. Only about three quarters of the way through the book did I realise that in fact it was sand that was falling out of the spine, she’d taken it on a beach holiday before lending it to me. There’s nothing sweeter than that reminder that someone you care for has shared those same shocks and revelations, plot twists and relationships with the characters as you have.
Recently (two days ago in fact) I read The Outsiders for the first time, at the persistence of a lovely girl I know from the US. I was travelling there late last year, and she thrust the book upon me and told me “you’ll be a true American when you’ve read that!” I had a bunch of started-but-not-finished books to read, and so only upon her reminder did I finally pick it up. I couldn’t have been more surprised – how had I never heard of this book? Why hadn’t I read it when I was a teenager? The book seemed to epitomize everything I saw when I idolised 1950’s and 60’s America: rock n’ roll, teen culture, poetry and fierce friendship. I read it in approximately three hours, and have spent the last two days telling every fellow British person who will listen all about it. This was a story that hadn’t made it across the ocean, or certainly not in any tangible way. Without my friend’s recommendation, I’d have missed it. It made me think about the disparate experiences of growing up, and the books that shaped us (an idea I am DEFINITELY going to explore in another blog post).
Conversely, what do we do if a book we are recommended does not strike a chord with us? Etiquette dictates that we are obliged to be polite, and that discord is perhaps rarely discussed. There have been one or two books that friends have raved about, which, awkwardly, did not live up to their esteem. Luckily, those few instances have been far enough away that I was never forced to address them directly! What on earth do you say when your friend speaks so highly of the story? I know I wouldn’t like to think that one of my recommendations had gone awry, but that is the chance you take! It’s almost what makes the act of lending that chosen book so deliciously exciting. You take the risk that they might not love it, because if they do love it, it’s a connection that you’ll share, and hours of eager opinion to mine.
I could go on, and on, and on, about the books I’ve found through friends. Or the books I always reach for when somebody asks for advice. But beyond my personal experience, I’m curious to know how these rituals have come to work in today’s society. In the age of social media, when we’re so often distracted by Facebook, when entertainment is instantaneous, and we have become more and more reliant on the internet to answer our questions, how often do we share books with one another? Do others hold the act of lending and borrowing alongside the reading of those books? Tell me your stories. I’m fascinated 🙂