One of my 2019 resolutions has been to downsize my overflowing book collection. I’m actually managing to keep to it, with several dozen books already given away or donated, and lots more to follow. In culling through my books for possible offloading, I’m trying to apply the following test:
- If it’s a book relevant to my work, am I ever likely to use or need it? With work-related titles, I don’t have to read them cover-to-cover. If I can reasonably expect to consult a book at some point for teaching, research, blogging, etc., I’ll hang onto it. Otherwise, I should find another home for it.
- If it’s a book for reading enjoyment, am I ever likely to read or re-read it? For fiction, it means cover-to-cover. For non-fiction, it means at least wanting to dip into a chapter or two.
I’m also using the same screening inquiries for book purchases. Over the past, oh, say, 35 years, I’ve made more impulse book purchases than I’d like to admit. Perhaps I’ve rationalized that this intellectual form of retail therapy is a more virtuous way to lighten my wallet, but it often results in buying a book that sits, unread, on a shelf or in a pile.
Put simply, I’m old enough to be thinking about how many books I can read during the rest of a hopefully decent lifespan. Decisions and choices must be made.
Beware the fickle reading heart
But the reading heart can be a fickle one. Or so it was reinforced to me during the past week or so, when I read with pleasure an espionage novel set in World War II, Alan Furst’s A Hero of France (2016). For some 30 years, Furst has been writing these richly atmospheric novels set in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, he has a dedicated following of readers and appreciative reviewers.
When I discovered Furst years ago, I thought that I would be one of those fans. The WWII era has grabbed my interest since childhood, and I enjoy reading espionage novels placed in that time. Reviewers have praised Furst’s ability to create evocative, suspenseful tales of everyday people confronted with the on-the-ground evils of fascism and decisions that must be made as a result. And what enthusiast of the genre can resist picking up books with titles such as The World at Night and Foreign Correspondent?
However, several tries at Furst’s books just didn’t take. I sped through one of them and thought it was OK. I read a few chapters of others but never finished. After obtaining several of his books, I eventually gave them away. Something just wasn’t clicking for me, rave reviews notwithstanding.
But a couple of weeks ago, I discovered A Hero of France in yet another pile of unsorted books. A little voice in me said to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. The book’s protagonist is a member of the French Resistance, and the story covers roughly five months. It is written almost as a series of vignettes, sometimes with days or weeks passing in the story, and the reader is left to imagine what happened in between. Different characters come and go as well; some loose ends aren’t tied up. While A Hero of France earned Furst another round of positive marks from book reviewers, some readers who like to have every subplot resolved found themselves lukewarm towards the way he constructed the book.
In my case, however, this time Furst worked for me. I finally got what readers and reviewers have been saying about his ability to recreate this historical time and place. Because the book is written in an episodic way, it made for easy subway reading. One minute I’m stepping into an Orange Line train to take me home, the next minute I’m in a café in 1941 Paris, wondering what will happen when the Resistance members meet up there. Rather than rushing through the book, which I am too often tempted to do with mysteries and suspense novels, I went along for the ride and savored the surroundings created by the author.
Outgoing and incoming
Now, of course, I find myself reacquiring a few of the Furst titles that I had given away. I’m not loading up on them, figuring that after one or two more, I may want to read something else. But I definitely have come to understand the appeal of this author.
So herein lies the dilemma: Will my current round of book culling lead to giveaways of other titles that I eventually will want to read? Am I prematurely giving up on books that I am capable of enjoying immensely?
After a while this starts to sound like a counseling and existential philosophy session for book lovers. Add in the reality that although I love to read, ironically I am not a voracious reader in terms of volume. Even in an imagined retirement, I don’t see myself simply plowing through books.
As I said, decisions and choices must be made. The good news is that I may select from an embarrassment of riches. The process of selecting books for offloading should also reintroduce me to others worth adding to my short list, rather than creating anxiety.
A recent Yes! magazine feature on 2018’s top scientific insights about living a meaningful life reports on a study by researcher Jeffery Hall (U. Kansas) examining the process of building friendships. In terms of sheer interaction time, the study indicates that we make friends much quicker when we’re younger than when we’re older:
This year, University of Kansas researcher Jeffrey A. Hall helped demystify the process of friendship-building in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. It’s the first to explore how many hours it takes for an acquaintance to become a friend.
Hall surveyed 112 college students every three weeks during their first nine weeks at a Midwestern university. He also gave a one-time questionnaire to 355 American adults who had moved to a new city in the past six months. In these surveys, the newcomers picked a friend or two and reported how much time they spent together and how close the friendship became.
With this data, Hall was able to approximate how many hours it took for different levels of friendship to emerge:
- It took students 43 hours and adults 94 hours to turn acquaintances into casual friends.
- Students needed 57 hours to transition from casual friends to friends. Adults needed, on average, 164 hours.
- For students, friends became good or best friends after about 119 hours. Adults needed an added 100 hours to make that happen.
I think I get it
When I briefly moved this blog to the TinyLetter platform in 2017, I wrote about friendships, and I’m going to incorporate some of that commentary here. First off, Dr. Hall’s research study appears to complement a 2012 New York Times piece that I cited, in which author Alex Williams examines the challenges of making friends from age 30 onward:
In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.
…As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
Of course, as these authors and researchers would no doubt agree, the processes of making and growing friendships are about much more than time and proximity. Shared experiences, values, and personality matches are just as important. Strong connections via the latter can create deep bonds in a relatively short amount of time.
That said, as a baseline matter, the findings that close friendships may be easier to create when we are younger resonates with me. Especially compared to college, law school, and my early years of legal practice as a Legal Aid lawyer, making new, close friendships as I entered into my mid-30s proved to be a challenge. It didn’t help that during that time, I had uprooted myself from New York City (my dearly adopted home of 12 years) to Boston to take a law school teaching job. Now, Boston is a beautiful city with many positive qualities, but in keeping with the town’s long-held reputation for parochialism, the locals weren’t exactly rolling out the Welcome Wagon for newcomers like me. And I just happened to be joining an institution that embodied a lot of that insularity. Those early years in Boston were awfully lonely.
During the past decade or so, however, I have found that making new friends is easier. They live in the Boston area, elsewhere in the U.S., and around the world. It took me until well into my 50s to get to this place. In particular, I have discovered, and in some instances helped to create, multiple communities of good, grounded people — tribes, if you will — that have fostered genuine friendships, while strengthening many friendships of longer vintage. During this time, and fueled by these good people, I have grown as a person.
All the lonely people
It’s worth our time and effort to pay attention to friendships, because we are also in the midst of what many observers and researchers are calling an epidemic of loneliness, especially among those later in life. (Just search “loneliness epidemic” and you’ll see what I mean.) The presence or absence of good friendships in our lives is not the only major factor in determining loneliness, but it’s a big part of the equation.
And if we add to the mix the challenges of forging new friendships as we get older, then the findings about loneliness and aging present yet another dimension: One of the obvious antidotes to loneliness — creating new, genuine friendships — does not come as easily as we age.
So, while it’s hardly a quick fix, we benefit individually and collectively by valuing friendships and the care and feeding of friendships. Individual tastes and preferences may vary, and I’ll toss in the introvert vs. extrovert factor as well when it comes to the role that friendships play in our lives. But suffice it to say that having good friends in our lives is part of living well and healthy.
I won’t claim to be an expert on the making and nurturing of friendships, but I’m pretty confident in offering this cluster of observations, drawing upon what I wrote in 2017:
1. To make and keep a good friend, you have to be a good friend. People may differ on what being a good friend means, but a good friendship goes both ways under any definition.
2. Especially when one friend is in great need, a supreme test of that friendship is how the other responds. A great friendship survives, perhaps even grows out of, this adversity.
3. Older friendships may ripen and mature. Shared memories from back in the day can be great (those old stories are the best, aren’t they?), but those friendships may deepen beyond the snapshots of days gone by — and ideally they will do so.
4. Shared, immersed interests and experiences are a great source of new friendships in adulthood. They can create positive, supportive, and lasting emotional connections.
5. Friendships can come from anywhere, including online interactions. For example, I find that Facebook at middle age has proven to be a source of genuine connections with folks from many different walks of life. Online communications are also a great way of maintaining and growing existing friendships separated by distance.
6. A diversity of friends makes our lives richer. I don’t mean diversity in so-called politically correct terms, but rather friends drawn naturally from different walks of life. For me, shared core values are important, but this still leaves abundant room for differences in lifestyles, ages/generations, political and social beliefs, and overall backgrounds.
7. Family members can become friends, and friends can become extended family members. It’s the quality of the relationship that matters, not necessarily bloodlines.
8. Love in many different manifestations can be a by-product of friendship. This includes familial, romantic, or simply a bond that deepens.
9. Friendships can form out of positive experiences, shared challenges, or adversity. What counts is the character of the relationships.
10. Friendships, like any other relationship, are not necessarily forever. People change, stuff happens. Search “ending a friendship” and you’ll see that a lot of people have thought about this.
11. That said, some friendships are forever. We should treasure them. Getting older is a mixed bag, but one of the best things about it is calling people your lifelong friends and knowing that it’s true.
12. I’m going a tad off-topic here, but a treasured animal can be a friend, too. If you doubt me, then I can refer you to dozens of folks who will attest that their dogs, cats, and other dear critters breathe life into the term “animal companion.”
13. In terms of our closer friendships, it’s mostly about quality, not quantity. If we’re fortunate, that circle can be a source of mutual fellowship and support over the long haul.
14. Shared values can matter to a lot of us in maintaining friendships. I don’t mean that we all need to agree on everything. Rather, I’m referring to core values about life and how we should treat one another.
Although I’ve been living in Boston since 1994, this city is not my first love when it comes to pro sports devotion. I grew up in northwest Indiana, a short drive away from Chicago. The Chicago Bears (football), Cubs (baseball), and Bulls (basketball) have been and always will remain my favorite teams.
Nevertheless, the past two decades have been a remarkable period for Boston’s professional sports teams. The once-cursed Red Sox have won four World Series baseball titles, most recently last fall. The Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have each won their league titles during this stretch. And the most successful franchise of all has been the New England Patriots of the National Football League, who on Sunday won their sixth Super Bowl championship during the current century.
The Pats faced a lot of challenges this season, and even fervent fans wondered if they could mount a serious threat in the playoffs. But they pulled it together at just the right time and prevailed over three playoff opponents, including Sunday night’s prey, the Los Angeles Rams.
Watching the local post-game television coverage of the Pats win was an interesting experience. It was festive, like dropping in on a bunch of parties celebrating the win — whether it was the players and coaches talking about the game and how it felt to win, or the sports analysts breaking down the individual and team performances, or the fans sharing their total exuberance over this latest, very hard-won championship.
Today, the city will host a championship parade for the Pats, and so the celebration will continue. The “rolling rally,” as it is called, will pass by the building in which I work and teach(see photo above). The expected crowd size is such that university administrators canceled classes that overlap with the parade and its aftermath, figuring (correctly, I believe) that it may be nearly impossible for students, faculty, and staff to get to classes and meetings amid thousands of fans lined up on the sidewalks that connect our downtown campus buildings.
Impact on the city
All of this sporting success has had a salutary effect on the city’s self-image. Boston has long been a town with a chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex. Mounting numbers of bad seasons mixed with some heartbreaking near misses for its beloved pro sports teams contributed to that dynamic — especially when they involved losses to teams from hated New York City. During the 21st century, however, the numbers alone establish Boston as the nation’s most winning sports town.
We can and should debate whether so much civic pride should be invested in professional sports franchises. In the case of Boston, sports should not alone define the culture of a city that also can be rightly proud of its importance in American history and its many contributions to the arts, education, high technology, medicine, and the sciences. And frankly, some of that diehard fandom here can get loud and obnoxious — especially when stoked by too many beers.
That said, given a choice between bad teams and losing seasons vs. winning teams and championships, I’ll take the latter, thank you. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the wins will continue, but for now it’s great fun to be a sports fan here.