Every bibliophile knows that we can scan our shelves and get this mingling sense of memory and feelings as though we’re looking at old pictures. Pick a random book and maybe you’ll remember dogearing pages earnestly without quite knowing what was so important at the time, but still feel changed by it. Ease another out of its place and maybe a wine stain along the edge leads you back when you had set it down for just a moment to take in its meaning. Each creased spine, each crinkled page, each faint underline or inked checkmark reminds you of the time spent reading. But not any time. That time. This time. With this particular book. And no other.
It is as though these books are old friends, who have changed you and challenged you, or perhaps comforted you when you needed it. But how can that be? They’re just two boards glued to some pulp. Artifacts of early modern technology that will eventually give way to the digital age. And their original writers are probably as dead as the trees they used to be. How could they possibly be “friends” even in a metaphorical sense?
Wayne Booth’s rhetorical criticism can help us flesh that idea out a bit. As he puts it
A literary work … is, during the time one reads it, a friend with whom one has chosen to spend one’s time. The question now is, what does this friendship do to my mind? What does this new friend ask me to notice, to desire, to care about? How does he or she invite me to view my fellow human beings?
In The Company We Keep, he further develops a sliding scale of friendship between implied authors and readers. The word “implied” is used because there are so many levels of narrative that separate the living writer from the living reader, and this form of criticism is especially aware of that.
In this system, different poles play out to help a reader identify the implied author as a “good friend” or not. An important way that an author makes an overture of friendship is by respecting the reader’s intelligence. Uses of allusion and irony can suggest that the author trusts the reader to know the reference or to get the deeper meaning beyond the surface. So, when Jane Austen leans toward you in the parlor to let you know with a barely perceptible twist of her lips that such a man is surely in want of a wife, she is being the best of friends.
There are many different forms of good friends that fit on these sliding scales in different ways, from O. Henry as an ironic entertainer to Dostoevsky as a challenging instructor. Among these, Booth proposes that the “fullest friendships” are the “friendships of virtue.” These are offered by implied authors through the “irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.”
Who are your best literary friends? What are your memories of them when you scan your shelves? And most importantly, how do they invite you to view your fellow human beings?