Let’s start with an undeniable fact: Reading is the best pastime ever. It makes your imagination buzz, your eyes open, your heart pound, and, if you’re lucky, it introduces you to the ultimate treasure: a best friend. If you know what I’m talking about, you’re probably thinking, “Totally. Jo March and I go way back.” Otherwise, allow me to explain. A best book friend, which I’m going to abbreviate as BBF, is a character that makes you think, “Yes! This person. I get this person, and this person would get me.” You feel like the character was written specifically, gorgeously, only for you. Personally, I have had three BBFs: Hermione Granger, Franny Glass, and Elizabeth Bennet. Each one has taught me something important and given me an enormous amount of comfort. It’s a special relationship that I believe you must find, and let me tell you why.
A BBF teaches you how to feel happy in your own skin.
I picked up the first Harry Potter when I was a sophomore in high school. Like most teenagers, I was in a race against my insecurities — and my insecurities perpetually lapped me. I had no clue who I was or what I loved and could be cajoled into any activity, from gossiping to playing softball. Then I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and met smarty pants Hermione Granger. I felt an instant kinship with her. She was everything I was not: confident, outspoken, and aware of her own intelligence. And yet I experienced a deep affinity for her. I had a vague sense of something in me that was just like her.
After meeting Hermione, a subtle shift occurred. I started to raise my hand in class and to feel less uncomfortable at the sound of my own voice answering questions. Over time (and more Harry Potter books), I began to rack up good grades and spent my free hours reading for pleasure. The more I dug into these activities, the more I recognized myself as a person who had been waiting for a chance to stretch and learn and achieve. I didn’t feel like I could pulled from one sport to the next or from one friendship to another. By the time I reached college, I was an unapologetic nerd.
Why Hermione instead of a real-life friend? It wasn’t that I didn’t know inspiring people. In fact, it was the opposite. I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the people I knew and as a result, I worked hard to listen to them and to match their interests instead of taking the time to cultivate my own. A BBF doesn’t require these accommodations. There’s no pressure beyond engaging with the story. And when you do that, all the concerns of what you should or could be drift away and you’re left making a connection with a character who stirs something real within you.
A BBF helps you through your darkest moments.
I had a difficult first year of college. I was homesick and constantly fighting with my boyfriend, and on top of that I was unaccustomed to Boston winters. I went to a counselor, wept to my parents, wailed to my friends, tried to pretend I wasn’t sad, admitted I was very sad, and yet there seemed to be no solution. I was just miserable. One Sunday morning, I reached the lowest of lows: I was hungover (a new and horrifying feeling) and full of contempt for myself when I tripped in the cafeteria and sent an entire tray of food flying: waffles, chips, bacon, a huge soda (I didn’t eat well in college). I returned to my dorm room and cried. I mean, cried and cried and cried. I didn’t know who to call anymore, and I had no words to express the sadness I was experiencing.
Then my eye wandered to the bookshelf and there sat Franny and Zooey, a book that I had loved in high school. Franny Glass was not yet a BBF, but rather a fascinating acquaintance, and even though I had plenty of other reading to do that Sunday, I read the book cover to cover in one sitting. What joy it was to follow a character who was as miserable and confused as I was: Franny endures an emotional breakdown and can’t seem to get her thoughts in order. She has a fear of pointlessness, a hatred of phoniness, and an inability to express exactly what’s wrong. YES! I understood her. When I finally closed the book, I felt remarkably better. I realized that I just needed to keep going, continue with my day-to-day life, and let time heal my sadness.
For better or worse, real people tend to comfort by comparison. If you stub your toe, chances are your mom will say, “I once stubbed my toe. Give it two minutes and you’ll feel better.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it trivializes the pain you are experiencing right now. Technically, everyone survives their first breakup, but try telling that to someone when their heart is shattered for the first time. A BBF is there for you to relate to, but not to tell you it’s going to be OK. Every injury is unique, and no one’s pain should feel reduced. A BBF understands that and acts as a partner for your confusion.
A BBF makes you grateful for alone time.
I’ve saved the best for last! If Hermione and Franny are my BBFs, Elizabeth Bennett is my soulmate. I can’t even type her name without experiencing a surge of joy. Smart, kind, and endlessly quick-witted, Elizabeth makes me feel like I’m at a happy hour with superb wine, delicious cheese, and an ocean view.
I first read Pride & Prejudice in high school. Then I read it as a freshman in college. Then as a sophomore, junior, and senior. I’ve read it approximately a zillion times, but of those times, the most important was one Friday night in San Francisco. I felt like I had to be out doing things, trying new restaurants, taking in the city. So I went to dinner and had a lovely time with friends but as everyone headed to the bars, I declared I was exhausted and returned home. Once I was snuggled in my bed, I got out Pride & Prejudice.
At first I wondered if I was lame for coming home just to flip open a book I’d read before. Other thoughts inched into my mind: the chores I had to do, the fun I should be having. But then Elizabeth continued to be so delightfully oblivious to Mr. Darcy’s feeling that those other concerns just dissipated. All of it seemed less important than the time I spent with Elizabeth Bennet, which is to say the time I spent with myself. Sitting in bed that night, I realized how content I felt in my own company.
This brings me to the ultimate thing about BBFs: They make you feel less alone, yet they allow you to actually be alone. When you find a character to love, you find a new part of yourself to love. You become for a moment your own best friend, the one who knows what you have hiding in your soul, the one who can dig herself out of hard times, and, finally, the one who holds the keys to her own content.
[Image via here]