Our Love Affair With Books

An essay by Joseph Skibell

When your friends are too busy, a book will always go out with you for a cup of coffee. It will walk with you, down the street or to the corner, snuggling against your arm. And it will sit with you, wherever you go, the entire time you're there--which can't be said for a newspaper or even a magazine. How easily one tires of their company.

But, of course, that's the way it is with a newspaper. You exchange a few polite, a few cursory words, and suddenly it wants to tell you everything! Blowing out facts about the weather, sports, wars in distant places. Flaunting its shallow and contradictory opinions. Resorting to jokes, even recipes, to keep your attention, if all else fails.

"Look, what you have to say is interesting," you want to tell this newspaper. "But right now I'm just not interested." And you turn away, you let your eyes unfocus, you stare at nothing, as you would to discourage a too-friendly stranger on an airplane.

Sometimes it gets serious with a book, and spending time with it in public places during the odd quarter hour is no longer quite so satisfying. You want, instead, to give it your full attention. Let's be honest. You want, instead, to crawl into bed and spend all day with it there.

You admit as much to the book.

The book, of course, is willing. But your friends, who hadn't time for a cup of coffee, now look at you askance. They demand to know why you're avoiding them. Your spouse, your lover, would be horrified, infuriated, to catch the two of you alone together.

And so you meet the book for clandestine lunches, for short but sweet afternoons beneath a tree in the park. You spend every free moment together. But it is not enough.

Brother Reader, Sister Reader, do not think that I am speaking hypothetically, or from a clinical distance, as a doctor would counsel the terminally ill. No, like you, I have known such love affairs. Like you, I have sat across the dinner table at pleasant restaurants with attractive and engaging companions, thinking only of the moment I could excuse myself from them and return to the company of my book. Like you, I have feigned fatigue or claimed overwork on a bright Sunday morning, not to be drawn away from its pages. Like you, I have stayed up until 3:00 a.m.--just one more chapter, one more chapter--despite a heavy schedule the following day.

There is, of course, love at first sentence. Many books have tantalized me in this way. Among them, Fritjof Capra's engaging memoir, "Uncommon Wisdom," in which the physicist and author of "The Tao of Physics" recounts his intellectual journey through the New Age, towards a paradigm shift: "In April 1970 I received my last paycheck for research in theoretical particle physics." What a beautiful sentence! One way of life ends, but there is a promise of great adventure.

Or consider the opening line of Gunter Grass's classic World War II novel, "The Tin Drum": "Granted: I am a patient in a mental institution." Cards on the table, things are not perfect, but still there is a story to tell.

Or the beginning of the heartbreaking "Hope Against Hope," Nadezhda Mandelstam's account of her husband's descent into the Stalinist labyrinth: "After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow." The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam has crossed a border--dramatically--and there is no return.

Other books take you in and eventually introduce you to their sisters and cousins, until, like a character in a Woody Allen movie, you do not know who you love the most. In this way, Goethe's "Faust" leads you to Dante's "Divine Comedy," as both poems chronicle journeys through the underworld. Like a lover faithful to too many, the character of Virgil in "The Inferno" and "The Purgatorio" sends you spinning in several directions at once: backward in time to Virgil's own "Aeneid," forward in time to the great German-Jewish novelist Hermann Bloch's "Death of Virgil" (reportedly a word-for-note reconstruction of one of Beethoven's final magisterial quartets). Dante again points you to poet James Merrill's magnificent epic, "The Changing Light at Sandover," in which Merrill and his lover David Jackson traverse the netherworld and the celestial spheres with the aid of a Ouija board, guided in part by the departed spirit of W. H. Auden. And so you rush off to read Auden's poems. Me, I came to love his "About the House," a late collection filled with sweet affection.

Still, at other times, this dizzying whirl is too much. You feel like settling down, going steady. As a young boy, I read all of Steinbeck; as an adolescent, all of Kerouac. A few years ago, I couldn't stop reading the works of psychologist James Hillman. Every few years, I still take his "Puer Papers" or his "A Blue Fire" out to dinner, just for old times' sake. Now I'm reading many books by a number of talented rabbis; among them, Lawrence Kushner ("God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know"), Zelig Plisken ("Love Your Neighbor"), Gershon Winkler ("The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy"). Each book is a doorway into the wisdom, grace, and beauty of the Jewish path of heart.

Eventually, though, you get to the end of a book, and even if you read it more than once, somehow it's just not the same. You can't deny it: something has gone out of the relationship. You thought you'd never feel this way and yet you do. You're bored. And one day, bored, you find yourself strolling through a bookstore. You tell yourself you're there only to browse. And yet, you can't help noticing that all the other books look more attractive than the one you've been spending your time with. You rubberneck your way through the fiction stacks, mentally unwrapping the book jackets. Despite your resolution not to, you guiltily buy something new. You take it to a coffee shop. You promise yourself to keep it platonic.

But before long, you're running your fingers up and down its spine and soon the two of you are together, alone, in your bed and huddled between the sheets.