Great Friends, Great Books

By Malachy Walsh, Seminar Host 

Books as Friends?

There’s a definite logic to the old saying that we can be measured by the company we keep. One thing that makes us feel good and even a little proud about reading Great Books is that we are keeping great company.  Of course, there’s a downside of the maxim: when we compare ourselves to the Great Thinkers, they can make us feel like zhlubs. Still, we enjoy “standing on the shoulders of giants”.”

In 1980 Wayne Booth wrote an article in the Kenyon Review where he experimented with the notion of taking this metaphor more literally. What if books are not just like friends but can be actual friends?

Since Booth was at the University of Chicago, it’s not surprising that he looked to Aristotle for the definition and classification of friends as his key measures for talking about and evaluating books.

 As I recall, Aristotle distinguished three basic levels of friendship:

  • The friends we just enjoy for pleasure- you know, the buds who make good companions on pub crawls.
  • Friends who actually serve some role or function in our lives by contributing help in the important activities of work, fitness, finance, politics, education, and the like.
  • And then there are the friends with whom we share not just fun and work but also our deepest thoughts, feelings, wishes, and fears. Aristotle demands more, however, of real friends than therapy;  he wants their good will. Our friends are people who want the best for us and for us to do the best things with our lives. True friendship is based on the mutual encouragement of virtue and the virtuous life.

The Virtue of Reading?

Aristotle draws a continuum from acquaintances who serve a minor role in our lives to the people we love and care about.   In Aristotle’s world of friends, how many of our relatives or even lovers would meet his call for reciprocal “goodwill”? Will your annoying little brother ever be a friend? 

Indeed, romantic love can sometimes get in the way of friendship.  I have gone to at least two weddings where it was clear from the best man’s toast that he was desperately in love with the bride.

Yes, love and friendship get complicated.  And, we can see the power of Booth’s analogy between great books and great friends.  Great books help us understand our world and ourselves by sharing the knowledge of the sciences and mathematics and the insights of philosophy, history, and literature.  Great books enrich us in every way and encourage us to develop our spiritual, moral, and intellectual virtues.

Would Plato Agree?

You may recall in the Phaedrus that Socrates isn’t so sure about the positive value of books because “they cannot talk back” and answer questions.  If great knowledge comes from the interchange, how can a book be a true friend?

I imagine this is where our Great Books conversation comes in.  Maybe the books don’t talk back, but we do. By sharing our readings we create a world beyond the page, a world beyond ourselves, a world of friends seeking to become better people.  

Like all important relationships, great books are simple and complicated at the same time, constantly offering us challenges to improve our reading, our thinking, and our engagement with life.  If friendship is reciprocal, that means we should put as much into reading as our great writers put into writing. Great books require hard work.

Although Socrates always wonders if virtue can be taught and if books are a good idea, Plato wrote all his gadfly questions down in a book…a great book to provoke a great discussion.   

A Great Book Always Has Something New to Say.

Aristotle notes that we tend to have different close friends during the different phases in our lives– fun-loving buddies in youth, romantic engagements, and families as we start life, business, and political friends as we battle through life’s struggles, and fellow survivors as we retire from the field.

Booth observes that Great Books can and should be reread during the different phases of our lives.  Now that I am in my seventies, Nestor is my hero in the Iliad. I don’t fit into my armor anymore.  At 25, the young copywriter in me loved the wily liar Odysseus. The middle-aged Shakespeare scholars seem to love the tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet;  old men like me gravitate to the more forgiving comedies and romances like The Tempest.

Yes, the books stay the same, but our reading changes from one time of life to another just as our readings differ from one person to another in our seminar conversations. Most new books have a way of getting old fast.  No matter how long a Great Book has been around or how often you have read it, a Great Book is always a new read.

Friends with Benefits?

Booth speaks of his love for George Elliot.  We love some friends more than others. I must admit, I still wince a little when Dante is on deck, while I never tire of watching Shakespeare on the boards. Plato sometimes angers me, while Aristotle can be exhaustingly cumbersome. Some of the friends depress me like Dostoevsky; others rally me like Tolstoy.  Some clear my mind like Pascal and Euclid; others always make me smile like Montaigne and Jane Austen. Some scare me like Freud; others comfort me like Aquinas. Kant seems to march and plod, while Nietzsche and Augustine soar. I am still looking for one to help me lose weight!

However they come, whenever they come, Great Books come as great friends.  Curl up with one tonight.


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