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The Ninja Reader

High-brow or downright pretentious, good PNR or sparkly vampires, I don't care about the premise so long as it entertains me.

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Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self
Laura Martocci

A collection of touching tributes

The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships - Robert B. Silvers, Barbara Epstein

Don your togas, it's philosophy time!

 

I wonder, in my more pessimistic moments, if we've completely lost track of what it means to be friends. (If I feel particularly cynical, I'd say that in 10 years' time, children would ask us if that word means anything other than a social network connection.) We've been using the term until it's threadbare - to describe teammates, classmates, casual acquaintances, those people we call on Saturday night after way too many glasses of Bailey's to scratch that ever-annoying itch, our professors, our lovers, our dog's vet, and our friend's friend's primary school teacher who added us on Facebook. We say: "I'd just like to be friends" to spare the feelings of the mouth-breather who finally worked up the guts to ask us out, and "I'd like us to stay friends," when a relationship goes sour. (And yes, I've been both the mouth-breather and the person doing the rejecting at some point in my life.)

 

And is it really so surprising? I mean, if someone you know online posts details of everything for you to see - from their struggles with depression to the contents of their lunch - wouldn't you say you have the correct degree of intimacy to claim friendship, even if you never actually met? Wouldn't you eventually start to feel invested? (And yes, I have shared my lunch and my struggles on social media at some point. What can I say, I get wrapped up in the hype.)

 

I don't want this review to turn into a meditation about the glory of Ye Goode Olde Days, because there was plenty of false connection, hypocrisy, evasiveness and back-stabbing even before the days of the Internet (and I'm old enough to remember them.) But I wanted to set some context, because this collection of tributes... it really hit me.

 

Because friendship is a pretty complex thing. As complex, if not more so, as romantic love. It takes a lot of time and work, to build a trust and a rapport, to make yourself vulnerable to another person, and trust them to help you out when you need it. Friendship can nurture, and it can hurt. It can exist for decades, and it can be snuffed out by a petty argument. You may know someone casually for years before you share any sort of intimacy. Or, a handful of meaningful meetings can mark you forever. 

 

The collection is not exhaustive of all the aspects of friendship, or even of many time periods and cultures, but it's pretty impressive for what it is. Not all the stories here are happy ones, and not all the people mentioned were the bestest of chums since kindergarten, but that's not it. To assemble tributes under the banner of friendship and only focus on the happy couples would be, after all, a bit dishonest. 

 

I'm not quite sure which is my favourite - perhaps Prudence Crowther's introduction to the letters of S.J. Perelman, since it's the one that got me to buy the book it was from - but if there is something all of these have in common, it's the clear evidence that the writers had extremely high regard for the friends that had left them. And Tatyana Tolstaya's tribute to Joseph Brodsky shook me pretty hard - both because her reflection on how a country starts loving its exiled poet once he becomes famous was spot on, and because of how she captured the exiled's longing to be back home. The idea of Brodsky, homesick but fame-weary, wanting to see the familiar sites and disgusted at the idea of being treated like some sort of hero... well, it resonated.

 

You may not recognize half these names. You may recognize all of them. I was the former, and boy, am I glad to discover many of these people.

 

You may be, too.