Good Coupled Books: Read How To Be by Judith Valente and Paul Quenon, OCSO with Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano for Insights into Why True Friendship Is Necessary for Living Well

This article explores stories about what it means not just to survive, but truly live—with the help of kindred-spirit relationships and soul-friends.

“I often puzzle over the nature, structure, and function of friendship in human life,” Maria Papova writes on her labor-of-love website, the marginalian (formerly brainpickings)

I agree with M. Papova’s opinions, voiced in her article, that intimate, platonic relationships are “indispensable to my own spiritual survival and, I suspect, to that of most human beings.” Have you experienced a friendship that helped your spirit survive debilitating loss and the ensuing confusion and chaos? I have.

I share M. Papova’s concerns around “the commodification of the word ‘friend,’” a practice that makes our relationships transactional. We can resist that impulse. We can imagine a more noble, generous story of human connection.

More noble, generous stories about friendship can counter the trend toward the distortion of what it means to be a friend. When we inflate the meaning of “friend” to include everyone we know, we corrode the meaning of the word. If everyone is our friend, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to commit the necessary time and effort to nurture and sustain our most vital relationships.

Important Questions About True Friendship

These are the important questions I’ve been living into:

  • If friendships are indispensable to our spiritual survival, then how can we stop cooperating with the economic and political forces whose agendas destabilize authentic, committed relationships?
  • How can we prevent our spiritual diminishment and impoverishment by attending to our life-sustaining friendships? 

How to Be and Dear Edward are Good Coupled Books because in their pairing, they offer a multiplicity of insights into what it means to be devoted to those loveliest incarnations of human connection — our kindred-spirit relationships; and our soul-friends.**  

In their storied-how-to book, How To Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living & Dying, Purpose & Prayer, Forgiveness & Friendship, authors Judith Valente and Paul Quenon, OCSO exchange heart-warming letters that reveal how platonic, kindred-spirit relationships can be magnifiers of spirit, enlightening and intensifying our ideal selves. I suggest pairing How to Be with Ann Napolitano’s novel Dear Edward , for a deep dive into how we might generously accept the reality of human fallibility, and how soul-friends, by forgiving us over and over when we fall short of our ideals, help us survive even the most horrific traumas “with our personhood and the friendship intact.” 

In my quarterly column, Good Coupled Books, I pair a spiritual storied-how-to book with a secular work of literature for two reasons:

  • To break down the division between secular and sacred, which occurs only in our imaginations, in order to restore wholeness where our lives have been fragmented;  
  • And because good coupling generates creative power

Storied-how-to books illuminate important ideas that help us not just survive, but truly live. But ideas don’t change us; practice does. Unfortunately, our fears can hinder, and even prevent, us from carrying out our best intentions to be and do better. 

Good literature turns abstract ideas into a compelling narrative, a story that can shelter us from the fears that prevent us from becoming our better selves*. By putting us imaginatively into an experience of surviving-to-thrive, literature endows us with the courage to live more fully, more competently—more dearly. Good literature shows us why we should treasure our lives, the world, and each other.

How To Be and Dear Edward: Good Coupled Books that share 4 Remarkable Parallels: 

1– Both How to Be and Dear Edward are a testimony to the old-fashioned act of letter writing as a way to facilitate meaningful, heart-to-heart connection and understanding.

They’re both about letter-writing, which is to say, correspondence. How To Be is the story of a correspondence between a journalist & monk; Dear Edward is the story of a correspondence between the present and the past (in alternating chapters). It can also be read as a correspondence between the living and the dead. 

How To Be and Dear Edward might just inspire you to take up your pen or sit down at your computer to compose an honest-to-goodness letter. Pairing these books reinforces the notion that by attentively reading and responding to letters, we participate in and welcome our transformation. 

2 — While these books tell two very different stories of friendship and community, both of these books’ central friendships highlight a platonic female-and-male relationship. 

3 — Both books speak to the same themes: living & dying; purpose & prayer (in the secular language of the novel, prayer becomes the human yearning for the common good), friendship, and forgiveness.

4 — Both books center what it means not just to survive, but to be fully alive. 

Both books approach this question, What does it mean not just to survive, but truly live? by bringing the certainty of death to our attention. Knowing death is before us, these authors remind us, is key to illuminating the value of life. 

These are good stories of hope and resilience, not devastating stories of annihilation and despair. These are stories in which, as Gareth Higgins writes in How Not To Be Afraid, “boundless hope and proportionate lament exist alongside finite trouble.”

Quotes from How to Be and Dear Edward 

Quotes from How to Be, on friendship, kindness, suffering, hope, and time

  • Friendship … is a face-to-face relationship… I am interested in you for your own sake and you are interested in me for my own sake…[friendship is]a pure, disinterested desire that others be who they are meant to be, and an abiding love even if they fail.
  • In this too-often cruel and fractured world, being kind represents quite a big accomplishment. 
  • Suffering can, at best, open us to empathy, to awareness, and to participation in the vast suffering of countless others in the world.
  • Although I continue to hope, I no longer have a clear image of what I am hoping for. 
  • We exist in a triune vessel of past, present, and future. All is simultaneous. 

Quotes from Dear Edward, on truth, sharing stories, the relief that comes when the truth of our trauma is witnessed and believed, and what death teaches us about time

  • Where do you go for the truth?…the question feels vast, unspeakable…
  • “Because of what you’ve survived…people want to talk to you…. they want to share something extraordinary about themselves because you’ve experienced something extraordinary.
  • “I hated when the nurses told you that you were going to be okay….You are not okay. We are not okay. This is not okay.” … [hearing this] he sits up. He nods his head. And somehow, that statement and that nod loosen and break apart the air between the three of them. There is a not of relief. They have somewhere to start, even if it is the worst place imaginable.”
  • The reality of death teaches us… “not to waste any time. Not to waste any love.”

How to Be and Dear Edward are passionate, accurate stories***

These two books represent the complex joyful-sorrowful reality of being human. Of course both of these Good Books are about so much more than friendship. How friendship helps us survive our challenges and traumas is, however, the theme that brought these Good Coupled Books together for me.

I live in a culture obsessed with narrowing everything down to the one thing, and this, too, is an impoverishing impulse I generally resist. My life has been enriched by reading these two book contemplatively, and in tandem. I predict yours will be likewise enriched if you reflect on and savor the wisdom in their pages. 

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* For more about how stories shelter us from our fears, see How Not To Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying.

** For greater understanding of how calling everyone we know “friend” impoverishes us, with an explanation of the differences between acquaintances, persons we know and like, kindred spirits, and soul friends, see Maria Papova on the concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness. 

***The second book I ever bought in my life about the craft of literature was The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart’s Truth into Literature, by Carole Bly, Milkweed Editions, 1990. I read it cover-to-cover twice, and barely understood its meaning because I was only 28 and terrified of my heart’s truth. The first book I bought on the craft of literature was The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes, Harcourt College Publishers, 1987.