As I continue to prepare for my Theories of the Reader Senior Seminar, I am rereading (and will be sure to include) Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. It’s my favorite work of literary theory and I vividly remember the first time I read it: I became so excited that I couldn’t sit still but kept jumping up and pacing around the room.
Booth describes great books as friends in the deepest sense of the word, supporting and guiding us. He also talks about how certain books can function as “false friends”—he mentions Peter Benchley’s Jaws—in that they pretend friendship but actually just exploit us. If we think that good books can make us better people, he points out, we must acknowledge that bad books have the power to do damage. In the following passage, however, he focuses on the classics and tells us how he is a better man because of the company he has kept with them:
The fullest friendships, the “friendships of virtue” that the tradition hails as best, are likely to be with the works that the world has called classics. When I “perform” for myself or attend a performance of King Lear, The Misanthrope, or The Cherry Orchard, when I read Don Quixote, Persuasion, Bleak House, or War and Peace, I meet in their authors friends who demonstrate their friendship not only in the range and depth and intensity of pleasure they offer, not only in the promise they fulfill of proving useful to me, but finally in the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.
I might say to any one of these in reply: If I choose to ignore you, I lose something more precious than any one point I could make about you and your kind; your company is in some ways superior even to the best company I can hope to discover among the real people I live with. Certainly it is superior to what is usually provided by those “inner resources” we are all advised to fall back on when bored. Unlike “real” people, you are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging his or her duller times and weaker moments. To dwell with you is to share the improvements you have managed to make in your “self” by perfecting your narrative world. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more fully generous than I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend.