On the shelf in my living room is a copy of By the Book, which I love to retrieve on lazy afternoons. A collection of the New York Times column of the same name, By the Book interviews writers and cultural figures like Neil Gaiman, Junot Díaz, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson about their books and the books that shaped them. Though journalist Pamela Paul usually asks a similar set of questions (What book is on your bedside table? Where do you read? Any guilty pleasures?), she receives a wide variety of responses. Some creators’ comments are unsurprising to fans of their work, like Marilynn Robinson’s obsession with John Calvin. But other revelations are delightfully unexpected, like Hilary Mantel’s love of self-help books.
Perhaps I find these interviews so compelling because I love the voices of these authors, and I’ll indulge any chance to hear more from them. Perhaps I pick up the collection for book recommendations—or warnings (wow, so many unkind words about Ulysses). More than often, though, I pick up By the Book because I love to learn what words have occupied a writer’s mind in the same way their words have occupied mine. These people love books, yes, and so do I. But the bookshelves of two avid readers can look almost nothing alike, and I’m deeply curious about the literary company these writers keep. I’ve never even met these people, and yet I want to know who their other friends are.
Many, many proverbs of adolescence are about the pernicious power of peer pressure: choose your friends wisely. Don’t fall in with the wrong crowd and lose yourself. If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?
But as children age into teenagers who age into adults, they also start to discover the wonders of positive peer pressure. Changing for someone else is often a sign of danger; changing because of someone else can be a sign of something very different. Sometimes you were the one in the wrong, and sometimes you were the one who needed to grow.
On Saturday I watched Turning Red, Pixar Animation Studios’ latest entry in their extensive catalog of Coming-of-Age Tearjerker Movies. Set in 2002 Toronto, the film follows thirteen-year-old Mei, who transforms into an enormous red panda whenever she experiences a strong burst of emotion. This is, of course, a problem for a tween who wants to please both her mother at home and her friends at school.
Near the end of the movie, Mei’s father discovers a camcorder recording of his daughter goofing off with her friends, staging a panda photoshoot and singing along to their favorite boy band. Mei, embarrassed, quickly offers to erase the recording—and erase that side of herself. But her father pauses. This Mei is different from what he expects, yes, but this someone has a smile he hasn’t seen her wear before. She isn’t just the quiet girl anymore; she’s growing into something beyond her family. And her friends—the dorky, delightful gaggle of friends Mei’s gathered for herself—are helping her become that person.
The older I get, the more my identity feels like a patchwork of past conversations and places and relationships. Western intellectual discussions often place identity and community as opposite forces, but as I grow older, I have less confidence in that picture of social and even parasocial relationships. I don’t believe that independence and belonging are all that different: we always make our meaning in the presence of others. Growing up is just a matter of noticing the neighbors and figuring out if and how we want to mirror them.
I can’t always place a writer’s reading in their work, and I can’t always place a person’s relationships in their presentation of themselves. But presence, whether parasocial or social, should leave its marks on us. If someone has mattered to us, then how could our time with them not shape us? Sometimes, in the midst of a conversation with a friend, I catch a tiny glimpse of something—a word choice, a nod to some reality or experience—that nods to something outside themselves. And I wonder who shaped that in my friend, and whether my friend might shape that in me.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.