Shared Existence

“At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence.” -Yves Bonnefoy

Confession: There is no one that I love that doesn’t love books.

I don’t mean that in a snobbish way, because loving books doesn’t necessarily signify erudition. Loving books means cherishing the experience of reading, of getting lost in their pages, mourning the end of good ones, and feeling betrayed by the bad ones. And book lovers tend to love other book lovers because we feel like we know each other and it is physically impossible for us to run out of things to talk about.  My friend Jenny put it perfectly once. She was telling me about a blind date that she had been on and was trying to describe why he was wrong for her. “He doesn’t like books,” she said, and I needed no more proof.

For us bibliophiles, the greatest agony is finding yourself bookless in a situation where reading material makes the difference between agony and enjoyment. For instance: the 3 fruitless hours I waited in line at the DC DMV would have been bearable if I had tossed Rick Bragg in my bag, or if I had remembered at least to grab Proust (who would have had many poetically depressing things to say about fruitless waiting). Waiting 20 minutes for the metro in the middle of the afternoon? Still aggravating as it belies the utter inefficiency of the DC metro system, but if I have a book – I can put aside my frustration. No time is lost time when you have a book.

Which is why you ALWAYS have a book. My friend Bethany called the other night to tell me that she walked out of her apartment building only to find that it was on fire so she was going to have to stay out for a while. My question: “What book do you have with you?” and of course she had multiple on hand.   When I was living in France, my brother came to visit and we went to Bordeaux and the beach. Upon arriving at the beach, we realized we had packed no food, no water, only a hand towel, but we had four books a piece. Priorities.

Obviously, this means that finishing a good book is the worst feeling ever. A reader of books feels a sense of accomplishment, but a lover of books feels a sense of loss. It’s over. For however long it took to read it, you entered in shared existence and now… it’s over.  So then you reread, and dog-ear pages, and tell everyone you know to read it so that you can live it again for the first time.

Not only do book lovers love books, they live in books, and I mean that in the most literal way possible: we surround ourselves. When James and I combined our physical belongings, his were almost entirely books. Now, an entire wall of our home is a hodgepodge of bookshelves, with no semblance of order, as James likes to try to connect two books that have found themselves next to each other.  It does Hugo good to sit next to Cather, and T.S. Eliot and Kenneth Grahame have never been better friends. Cormac McCarthy and Shakespeare might be a little more of a stretch, but Dante on the other side will keep them in order.

And sometimes I think to myself about how happy I am that I married a booklover. There will be days, I’m sure, where we will run out of things to say to each other. Days where work was long, and nothing happened, and we have no new opinions, or were too tired to think new thoughts. Days where we annoy each other, or are tired of each other, or are bored with each other.  It seems hard to imagine those days now, in this happy bubble of our first months of marriage, but I know they’ll come. But then there are Pip and Odysseus and Atticus Finch and Asher Lev and Daisy Buchanan and Mole and Toad and the Little Prince to keep us company, to give us perpetually fresh thoughts.

Then there are books. 

(Yes, book lovers take engagement photos with their books. These are ours from the amazing Alumbra Photography, and you can see some other bookish engagement photos here and here).

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14 Responses to Shared Existence

  1. I love your post. It is so me. I have never been lucky enough to meet someone who loves books as much as I do. But you give me hope that there are others out there like you and James….

  2. Shannon says:

    I love everything about this post. Oh so true. I have to admit that carefully packing all my books (we will not mention how many boxes there are) so they would be safe while I lived on the other side of the country was a somewhat higher priority than wedding planning last spring. Not higher than getting married, but higher than the planning 😉

    And thank you for expressing the sadness of finishing a really good book. When I was a kid, I avoided the last books of a beloved series like the plague. Seriously, it took me years to read The Last Battle. You are so right that the only remedy is making other people read them. Which is why one of the ways I console myself through the not so great parts of pregnancy is the knowledge that I will have a completely fresh mind to introduce all the best books in the world too 🙂

    (And this was really long. . . sorry!)

  3. Leslie says:

    Hannah, I decided that your engagement and wedding photos are in my top five best couple photos. Well done. Well done.

  4. says:

    Don and I are reading good books this afternoon. Both of us enjoy getting into great books. Just finished O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy (The End of Camelot) and Lorna Landers Oh My Stars. Would recommend both. You are right! One needs to be with another book lover as your love. Enjoy your post so much. Aloha ( don’t know how to underline book titles on the iPad)

  5. kgunders says:

    All true. I’d also like to add that on days when you have been together long enough that you come home tired and don’t have anything to say to each other, that’s not necessarily bad. On those days, you understand each other so well you don’t need to say anything. The best feeling is just being together and enjoying the end of your long day in the presence of the person you love.

    Another thought: I never divided potential dates by “loves books/doesn’t love books,” but one of the things I love best about Lee is that he is always teaching me something new. And that’s pretty hard (but not impossible!) for someone to do if they don’t read books.

    And for the record, the only person who I dated for any significant amount of time who didn’t read books a) lied to me about reading books, and b) is probably a sociopath.

    • Hannah says:

      Very true. Sometimes silence is the best togetherness. : )

      I also appreciate that Lee is not a sociopath. If he turns out to be one, James and I are backing out of becoming couple friends.

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  9. Ana says:

    Hi, I just start to reed all your post, and I really like the way you describe the love of reading, I like to read, but I don´t know how to choose a good book, so I wonder if you can recommend your favorite books and give me some advice to how to choose a book. Thanks

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