Books are increasingly treated as content vehicles: whether they are paper or digital, they are the means to an end, a structure supporting the stories within. But a paper book can be much more than that, too. Stever Robbins writes that books “deepen existing relationships,” and describes the many ways in which a paper book on a plane, on your bookshelf, or at a bus stop is both an invitation and an introduction. The books we read in public say something about us. They suggest that we’re readers but also hint at the themes that most interest us. Do we enjoy science fiction, philosophical nonfiction, biographies, YA, literary fiction, or how-tos? Sitting on a shelf, a book is an invitation to friends and family to discuss and share ideas and stories.
Robbins’ reflection inspired me to think of the times I have encountered a new relationship—or deepened an existing one—through a paper book. I distinctly remember a train ride from Leipzig, Germany, to my temporary home in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany in 2011. It was a crowded Sunday evening train, and there were no spare seats. The lady sitting next to me was quietly reading, and when I finally peeked over at her book, I noticed that it was in English. I smiled over to her and asked her, in English (assuming that she might even be American), how she was enjoying her book. To my surprise, her response was halted and self-conscious. She was German and still learning to speak and read in English. We struck up a conversation, and she shared with me how much she wanted to learn and that she had been trying to find discussion groups, but that she didn’t know any native speakers, and had struggled to make any real progress. I felt instantly at ease with her, as I had been struggling to learn German for several years, also wishing that I knew native speakers with whom I could practice. The two of us excitedly—and slowly—talked about our lives, families, and native cities—she in English, and I in German, both passionately practicing our second language. Had I not looked over to see her book, I probably would have just drifted off to sleep for the hour ride home.
I am also reminded, however, of a particularly unsettling café encounter from a few years ago. A fellow high school alum walked in while I was reading and eating my lunch and saw me with a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He gave me a quizzical look, saying, “Do you really read bestsellers? That’s when I knew my last relationship was over, when books like that started showing up.”
Here’s to the power of the paper book!
Have you ever been introduced by a book? Or deepened a relationship with a family member or friend because of a shared book or interest? Or broken off a relationship over a book? Let me know in the comments; I would love to hear your stories!