How Many Novels Can Be Our Best Friends?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 10, 2014

Is it possible to know a book like a good friend? Does reading a book one time give us that best friend closeness? People often say a book changed their life, so we know some books can inspire great passion by what about lasting relationships? Does one reading let us experience the full intent of a book? I’ve read some of my favorite books many times, but I doubt I could analyze them with any depth, not like a professor of literature does with a classic. I’ve found entertainment rather than enlightenment in the books I’ve consumed. I want to change my ways. I want to pick some books and get to know them very well.

The old saying, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” can be applied to almost anything. However, when I ask, “Can we read too many novels” I’m going beyond that. Most people read for pleasure. Reading is an escape, and it’s fun, so what’s the harm of reading as much as we want? Even that line of attack is not where I want to go. Sure, there’s more to life than reading books, but it’s up to all of us to decide if we read too much. When I ask, “How many novels can be our best friends” I’m asking if some books deserved to be more than just read quickly to find out what happens in the end.

Asking questions is a way to explore deeply into a subject. But I’m not questioning the value of reading for fun, I am wondering if always reading a new book isn’t hurting my ability to appreciate novels at a higher level. I’m wondering if reading too many books is like having too many friends. Are my relationships with books, even my most favorite, really just acquaintances and not close friendships? I’m not suggesting I find my perfect reading companion and become best friends forever, although that might lead to the deepest understanding possible for a novel. I am asking if reading too many books makes us miss out on the depth that novels can give us.

If you’ve ever read any great literary criticism, you’ll know that some people get a lot more out of a novel than the average reader. Just read an issue The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books and tell me how sophisticated of a bookworm you feel afterwards.

I admit my fiction habit, is one where I consume mass quantities of words. I read in a hurry to finish, and then rush to the next story anxious to have another page turning narrative to follow. Lately, I’ve been researching the topic of effective thinking, and I realize that even though think about books more than your average bookworm, I’m far from being in the professional leagues of story masters.

This leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t have books that I get to know very well. And how many books should be on that list? Could I ever claim to be a true friend to one hundred books? I doubt seriously if I could even memorize the titles of one hundred books, so one hundred is probably too many. However many there should be, I should be able to recite their names as if they were my children. Yet, over a lifetime, I’m guessing we find between 25-100 books that resonate so well with our souls that list could be our reading fingerprint.

In Fahrenheit 451 the characters became one book they memorized. I don’t want to be monogamous to one book, but I wonder how many literary companions I could pick and still be faithful to them all? If all seven billion plus people on this planet made a list of favorite books, how many books would it take before we’d all have a unique list? Would any two people on planet Earth pick the same 15 books? Or does it take 20 or 25 before absolute uniqueness shows up? Wouldn’t it be strange if it was as small as 8? Tragically, there are millions, maybe billions of people that don’t read for fun at all.

Another way to approach this problem is to ask how many books would I’d be willing to study in 2015, including reading criticism for each novel, and to write an essay that explores the deeper knowledge I’ve discovered about story. As someone who daydreams about writing a novel, this could be very educational. Right off the bat, I’m thinking twelve, one for each month. But is that too ambitious? Are there even twelve books I’d devote extra time to in 2015?

How shall I pick? I could easily select twelve old favorites I’ve reread many times, but to be honest, they’d include a lot of books I learn to love as a kid, and they’d mostly be science fiction. Obviously I should pick old favorites that still have depths to explore, or pick new books I feel will expand my literary knowledge. But they also need to be books I’d be willing to read again and again. I can imagine picking twelve and breaking up with nine after I’m done. If I continue to pursue this quest I expect in several years to have a dozen books I’ll really feel are my best fictional friends.

I want to reread some books to get more out of them, and I want to read some new books that will push my reading skills. I wanted to pick mostly famous books so there will be plenty books about those books. I’m also thinking I’d like read books that have been made into movies, just see to how they are interpreted. I’m pretty sure I want books that have audio editions, so I can read and listen. Here’s a list of books I’m considering getting to know in 2015:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  3. Out Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1861)
  4. Crime and Punishment by Fyordor Dostoyevsky (1866)
  5. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
  6. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
  7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
  8. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  9. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
  10. Journey to the End of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
  11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  12. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  13. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1948)
  14. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  16. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez  (1967)

Mostly these are new books I hope I’ll love to get to know, but a few are old books I want to reread because I think I missed a lot the first time around. In some ways I feel like I’m moving into a new phase of life, because none of these books are science fiction. I’m not giving up on science fiction, but I feel I’ve overdone the genre. I do think I’ve reached a stage where I could pick my 25-50 all-time favorite science fiction novels. For the last ten or twelve yeas I’ve been rereading the science fiction books I read when I was in my teens and twenties, and most didn’t hold up. My ultimate list will be those that do. Sadly, most novels don’t even deserve to be read once. Most of us are pretty slutty when it comes to going to bed with a book. There are a lot of faces and names we’ve quickly forgotten. Is it any wonder that I’m asking if we have too many one-night reads, and not enough serious literary relationships?


3 thoughts on “How Many Novels Can Be Our Best Friends?”

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird is a best friend, I guess. I know that one really well. Others that are close might be David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities. I have read several more than once. Ulysses will never make it as a best friend.

  2. I’d say that Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is my best novel friend. I re-read it every few years for the humor of Abbey’s writing, the joy of communing again with old friends, and of vicariously sharing in their adventures. The most recent time I read it was while in the hospital recovering from prostate surgery about 5 years ago. It certainly helped the time pass quickly and pleasantly. Is this what is called bibliotherapy?

    1. My best friend book since childhood has been Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I reread it every few years. There are other such comfort books I reread when I get sick. I guess they are my bibliotherapy. Most are favorite SF novels I discovered when I was 13, 14, and 15.

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