Words With Friends: On the Joys of Tandem Reading

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I learned to read on my own when I was barely five (getting my parents excited about the possibility that they had a child prodigy on their hands, a notion quickly dispelled by my total lack of math skills), and from then on, I never stopped. I was, to put it mildly, not the most sociable kid, partly because of my constitutional shyness and partly because we moved to new countries three times before I turned eight, leaving me faltering to figure out schoolyard lingo in Italy when I’d just barely cracked it in Russia. Through all that, though, books were my constant and faithful friends. I know—barf—but it’s true; the joy I got from cracking a new Baby-Sitters Club book or Nancy Drew mystery remains close to unrivaled in my adult life.

Actually, that’s not true. There is something better than reading alone, I’ve discovered, and it’s reading side by side with friends who don’t judge you for wanting to hit “pause” on socialization and disappear into a book. In ninth grade, I struck up a tenuous friendship with two of the other kids who’d also come in from different middle schools. One, a rangy athletic type with a host of popular older siblings, quickly found her place in the upper echelons of the high-school caste system and promptly forgot me; the other, a quiet comedy nerd and fellow bookworm named Jazmine, is still my best friend to this day. Our history is long and complex, made up of old SNL clips and hastily chugged, illicitly obtained Smirnoff Ices and endless subway rides from the Bronx to Manhattan, but I knew we had reached a point of no return, friendship-wise, when we began to read together.

In case you’re tempted to think of Jazmine and me as preternaturally sophisticated New York teens who would rather discuss Sartre than socialize, I should emphasize just how wildly unpopular we were in high school. Nobody invited us to football games or homecoming dances or *Gossip Girl–*style, pill-fueled ragers in their rich parents’ empty brownstones, so we learned to make our own fun, trading a copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty back and forth and discussing the protagonist Zora as if she were the third member of our little group. Jazmine has always been a more ambitious reader than I am, tackling the Russian novelists and David Foster Wallace when I was still secretly paging through my middle-school copies of The Clique, but reading was a common ground for us, a place we could go and find one another. As our friendship endured into college and then into our 20s, we could reliably bond by locating a wine bar, splitting a bottle of something pink and fizzy, and obscuring our faces with our respective paperbacks as we reached to stuff our faces with bar snacks.

Amazingly enough, the adult world proved far easier to navigate, socially speaking, than the thorn’s nest of high school, and I found more friends whom I was comfortable reading. On a New Year’s trip upstate last winter, my friends Kate, Maya, Abby, and I all rotated a few copies of a particularly execrable piece of trendy literary-ish fiction that I’m too polite to name, joyfully reading the worst sentences aloud as the men in our group went hiking, or shoved each other, or whatever it is men do when I’m not paying attention. When my friend Natalie drove out to Texas with me for my long-planned move to Austin, some of our best nights were spent sitting silently in vaguely creepy Airbnbs across the American South, our noses buried in the reads we’d picked up at local bookstores from Asheville to Nashville. (As we were preparing to leave for the trip, my friend Eliza, who had lived with me in L.A. and traveled with me many times, warned Natalie: “Make sure to bring books, because Emma will just whip one out and start reading.”)




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