Last December, while the Skirball Fire tore through the Los Angeles neighborhood nestled next to my own, I was studying abroad 5,000 miles away in Salamanca, Spain. When my sister texted me asking what she should rescue from my room during the evacuation, I didn’t respond with “my cherished childhood photos,” or “passports,” or even “Is everyone okay?”
No, what I desperately texted back was: “SAVE MY BOOKS.”
Luckily, the fire didn’t make it to our house, but that moment made it clear to myself and my family that I love reading.
Recently, though, I’ve learned that I also read to love.
For most of my life, I’ve read to relax, to laugh, to think, and especially, to escape — to faraway planets in lonely galaxies, to times long past, to places I’ve never been and will probably never be. It was only in these past couple of months that reading has ceased to be a solitary retreat from reality. Instead, it has become something intimate, something I share with the person I love outside of the literary world.
Surprisingly, this bibliophilic epiphany is all thanks to the utter joy that is long-distance dating.
Everyone told me it would be difficult, but I didn’t quite realize what they meant until a month of Skype calls had gone by. My boyfriend and I would take turns filling each other in on our respective classes and drama with friends and work and classes and friends and work and—
We ran out of things to talk about quickly.
But both of us are bookworms, so naturally, while brainstorming how to enliven our conversations, we came up with the most bookish solution possible.
We decided to start a book club, just the two of us, so that we’d have specific topics to discuss over Skype. There were only two ground rules:
1. Read (obviously).
2. Don’t read ahead of the other person.
These rules proved to be deceptively challenging once he suggested we start with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” an 824-page tome that makes me feel self-consciously pretentious every time I casually pull it out in a coffee shop. It’s the type of book that I would pretend to have read, when really all I’ve done is skim through the Goodreads reviews mocking it.
Still, while it wasn’t a book I would ever have chosen to read on my own, I told myself that this is what it means to be in a serious relationship. I need to try new things. I need to compromise.
I found myself repeating that mantra as we got deeper and deeper into the book. It seemed like whole chapters melted in his hands in a matter of days, whereas I stumbled through pages that felt endless. He started texting me: “So, are you done with the chapter yet? If not, can I go ahead?”
While I struggled with rule number one, he ended up breaking rule number two. And as we kept chugging along, the difficulties we came across in reading a book together started to parallel those that came with a long-distance relationship.
Just like with the book, there were times in long-distance when one of us would be completely comfortable with the situation while the other found it difficult. It was hard to balance homework, jobs, and friends with the demands of an incredibly philosophical and rambly Russian author. Long-distance relationships, and the patience they require to succeed, aren’t any easier.
Beyond these lessons, our book club brought us closer in a way I didn’t think was possible for two people 2,000 miles apart. The book, at its best, became more than just a casual close reading session. Instead, it was a conduit for the type of profoundly personal conversations that build intimacy between partners. Without the book as a starting point, it would have been awkward to jump into those types of talks amidst the time lags of Skype and our cyclic complaining about classes.
Looking back now, I can admit that we did, at times, take the book club too far. It probably wasn’t necessary to discuss the novel while drinking red wine amidst twinkling fairy lights, Tchaikovsky playing softly in the background. But it worked for us. Now, when we Skype, I find we always end the call with so much left to say. And not just about the book.
Our club has reminded me why I fell in love with him in the first place, this boy who quotes “Ozymandias” to me on long car rides and strongly believes something irretrievable is lost when a book becomes a film.
Most of all, it reminds me why long-distance — and reading — is worth it.
Samantha Resnick is a linguistics major at Pomona College. She likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.