Spirituality and Books
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“Books are my best friends ...” says Rabbi Rami, discussing the connection between spirituality and books—and why he chooses company carefully.
I apply the Dunbar Number to my library. The Dunbar Number comes from the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and refers to his belief in the number of people with whom the average human can be friends. Dunbar defines these friends as people you would join for a drink if you happened to run into them at a bar. For most people, Dunbar said, that number is 150.
Dunbar scares me. Having 150 friends—real friends, not Facebook friends—is terrifying to me. A dozen friends, or maybe two, are all I can handle. As for going to a bar and accidentally meeting a friend there—no way! I never go to bars; I don’t drink any form of alcohol and never have. And if I do go to a restaurant, unless I have made arrangements otherwise, I go alone. The whole point of going alone is to be alone. For the most part, I prefer to have lunch with a book over lunch with a person.
Books are my best friends. These friends have only one desire regarding me: to make me wiser and maybe a bit more compassionate and just. Sure, I’ve had book friends who nagged me to lose weight and live a more minimalist life, but these were Dunbar friends and I simplified my life by placing them in the Little Free Library my wife built on our front lawn.
They are my beloved community, and I am comforted just seeing they are still with me.
While there are books throughout our house, most of these are my wife’s friends; my books are in my office. Behind me as I sit at my desk are my research friends: TaNaKH (Hebrew Bible), Septuagint (Greek Bible), English Bibles, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar. I only see them when I literally turn to them for help. In front of me are my closest friends: Alan Watts, Martin Buber, Toni Packer, J. Krishnamurti, Lao Tzu, Marshall McLuhan, Ram Dass, Cynthia Bourgeault, Baruch Spinoza, Ramana Maharshi, Andrew Harvey, Catheryn Baker, Swami Vivekananda, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Franz Kafka, Edward Jabes, and Bill W. I imagine them in conversation with one another. Sometimes I listen in. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes one or another accompanies me to a restaurant (or did, before COVID-19), but I rarely bump into them in the company of other diners. Too bad. I would be happy to talk with that person.
I go through my library every few months and cull out any Dunbar friends that have found a place on my shelves. I donate these books to the university library. The ones I mentioned here have been with me for decades. They are my beloved community, and I am comforted just seeing they are still with me.
What does this have to do with spirituality? You might think the connection is in what these friends have to say. You wouldn’t be wrong. But the deeper truth is that just knowing people authored such books gives me hope for humanity, and while spirituality is more than hope, it is not less.
More from Rabbi Rami on spirituality and books, from the print issue of Spirituality & Health.
Reader question: Can you get enlightened from reading a book?
Rabbi Rami answers: Enlightenment has two parts: (1) seeing all beings as expressions of the singular source and substance of all reality, and (2) engaging each being with love and respect. Books that bring you a sense of unity with, and compassion for, all beings can be enlightening. Books that breed division and contempt cannot. Be careful to plant seeds of love through your reading and not weeds of ignorance, arrogance, and fear.