Sunday, June 04, 2023

'A Companionable Quality in Some Books'

Samuel Johnson’s definition of companion in his Dictionary amounts to a condensed essay: “One with whom a man frequently converses, or with whom he shares his hours of relaxation. It differs from friend, as acquaintance from confidence.” Not a distinction likely to make much sense to most of us. Friendship we understand, as did Johnson, who prized it and often wrote about it. Friend he defined as “one joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy: opposed to foe or enemy.” Johnson often defines words negatively, by contrasting them with what they are not. 

Consider his three citations for companion. First, Lady Macbeth speaks to her husband after he has murdered Duncan: “How now, my lord, why do you keep alone? / Of sorriest fancies your companions make?”

Next, Ecclesiastes 6:10: “Again, some friend is a companion at the table, and will not continue in the day of thy affliction.” (Remember Ishmael in Chap. 96, “The Try-Works”: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.”)

Finally, the forgotten Matthew Prior in “Solomon on the Vanity of the World”:


“With anxious doubts, with raging passions torn,

No sweet companion near, with whom to mourn.”


Johnson’s definitions and examples of usage suggest companionship is a form of solace, a way not to be alone and not to be lonely. By this definition, I think of books as companions, as I have since I was a boy. I had to look up something in Companionable Books (1922) by Henry Van Dyck (1922), who writes in his preface:


“By companionable books I mean those that are worth taking with you on a journey, where the weight of luggage counts, or keeping beside your bed, near the night-lamp; books that will bear reading often, and the more slowly you read them the better you enjoy them; books that not only tell you how things look and how people behave, but also interpret nature and life to you, in language of beauty and power touched with the personality of the author, so that they have a real voice audible to your spirit in the silence.”


Van Dyck’s prose is a little overripe but I accept his understanding of bookish companionship. Van Dyck includes a chapter on Johnson titled “A Sturdy Believer.”


That book brought to mind More Companionable Books (1947) by George Stuart Gordon, who includes Boswell’s Life of Johnson. In his preface, describing his favorite books, the ones that accompany him through life, he says they are:


“[M]uch more alive and a great deal more companionable than any best seller one might care to name. What most men and women are looking for all their lives is companionship, and so far as books provide it, here it was. There is a companionable quality in some books that skips the centuries, and I was reluctant that anyone should miss out through mere timidity and misunderstanding.”

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