Last year, author Claire Messud scolded a reporter who commented that she wouldn't want to be friends with the narrator of Messud's most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asked the author if she'd want the character for a friend.
"For heaven's sake, what kind of question is that?" said Messud. "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn't 'is this a potential friend for me?' but 'is this character alive?'"
I completely agree with Messud that one should never judge a novel by how much you'd like to have coffee with the protagonist. And I share her frustration that female authors and their characters are more frequently expected to pass the likability test.
But I can't understand why Messud was so dead-set against ever reading for friendship.
I read for many reasons -- for information, for enlightenment and for insight into the scariest and messiest parts of humanity. I also read for companionship. If Messud has never curled up with a book and felt the warmth of connecting of with another like-minded soul, that's her loss.
Books have helped me understand why our government is broken, why our economic system nearly collapsed and why honeybees are critical to the future of humanity. Novels have given me insights into the minds of corrupt CEOS, petty criminals and adulterous spouses. But if you want to know why I have adored books since I was a child, it's because they have provided the warm hand of friendship during the times I needed it most. Movies and television can distract from loneliness; social media can offer a quick hit of connection. But, short of having another human being in the room, nothing soothes a lonely heart like a great book.
This year, Valentine's Day falls on a Friday, making it a double whammy for those who are on their own. So if you're looking for some great company on February 14, then meet a few of my friends.
The Science of Single by Rachel Machachek. After being unattached for seven years, Machachek realized her laissez-faire approach to meeting men wasn't working. So she decided to try a more scientific method, employing every available resource -- online dating, speed dating, self-help books, dating coaches -- to aid her search. The result is a funny and wise account that longtime singles everywhere will relate to.
Motherhood, Rescheduled by Sarah Elizabeth Richards. In the popular media, single women who freeze their eggs have been described as "panic-stricken," but the women in Richard's book are anything but. They're smart, independent women who experienced a great sense of freedom and relief after taking this step. In clear language, Richards explains the science behind the new technology and shares the stories of women who have opted for the procedure, including herself.
The Wisdom of a Broken Heart by Susan Piver. The pain we feel after a breakup is one of the worst that human beings experience. Naturally, most of us want to get through it as quickly as possible. Piver explains how this raw, untethered state is actually one of our greatest sources of wealth.
Quirkyalone: A Manifesto For Uncompromising Romantics by Sasha Cagen. If you'd rather be alone than in a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship, then meet your tribe. February 14 is International Quirkyalone Day, an annual event that isn't anti-Valentine's Day. It just happens to fall on the same day.