Book Review

A friend indeed?

A distinguished writer argues that you have far fewer friends than you think

CorrespondentJuly 23, 2006 

If you required her to identify every one of them, my 16-year-old daughter would tell you, with no particular sense of superiority, that she has easily 100 friends, probably more. Some in Atlanta, where we lived for 10 years, others throughout the Triangle, still others she knows not where -- Facebook, MySpace, who knows? She is a teenager, after all. I am considerably older and I have not had 100 friends in my entire life.

There are friends, and then there are friends.

There are, I should say, friends, and then there are acquaintances. Or colleagues, who might become friends.

It would seem logical that the older you get, the more friends you would accumulate. But in my experience, it works the other way around: The older you get, the more you distinguish between those who know you for the person you are and those who "know" you without knowing you at all.

Ask yourself: How many people in your life qualify as a friend rather than as someone you like well enough but wouldn't necessarily look forward to having dinner with on Saturday night? And how many would consider you their friend? In "Friendship: An Expose," the essayist Joseph Epstein tells us that when he was in his late 40s, about 20 years ago, he took inventory of the hundreds of people he knew and was friendly with. Seven, he determined, were his friends. If we're honest, most of us would agree that seems about right. Any more and you're opening the door to people you hope will have to rush off soon. Or, friendship being a two-way street, to those who send their regrets.

"Friendship," Epstein's 17th book, is a diverting taxonomy of the most ambiguous of human relationships, one we all presume to understand but can't easily define. " 'Friend,' Victor Hugo said, "is sometimes a word devoid of meaning; 'enemy,' never." In the plural form favored by politicians, the word merely expresses a cordiality and openness -- a friendliness -- that may or may not be genuine. Even the singular form is not without ambiguity. In a meeting one morning, a former boss whom I admire to this day leaned across the table, looked me square in the eye and said, "Look, friend ..."

It got my attention.

But Epstein's subject is that relationship between two people whose intimacy is spontaneous and natural, whose mutual trust is unquestioned and whose enjoyment in the other's company is refreshed every time they are together. For friendship to be sustained, it requires a sense of anticipation.

"Friendship," Epstein writes, "speaks to a hunger to renew the pleasure of meeting. It suggests that two people haven't exhausted the delight they take in each other. ... We share interests, humor, background, chemistry of one kind or another. We have, we sense, things to give to each other that will enlarge and enrich both our lives."

We sometimes read of married people who were each other's best friend. A nice sentiment, and yet most of us know it is seldom the case. The nature of intimacy in even a happy marriage is different from the intimacy shared by friends, and so too are the obligations. We should not expect in a friend the forbearance of a spouse. The friend, Epstein writes, "does not, as the English say, have to see you out, has not signed on the duration."

Well, marital contracts are not irrevocable either. People come and go, including friends, and the reasons are many. By a certain age, most of us will have let once-close friendships wither and die. This is vintage Epstein:

"I sometimes felt I was the perfect customer for a much-needed but never produced Hallmark card that would read 'We've been friends for a very long time,' followed on the inside by 'What do you say we stop?' "

The literal-minded reader will be put off by that, others might not get it and still others -- myself included -- will find it wry, even hilarious. It's offhand, understated, vaguely self-mocking. But humor should not be explained. The one high school classmate I am still in touch with was not my best friend when we were teenagers. I think he was more interested in my friendship than I was in his (I pray he never reads this). But through him I met another fellow, and for a few years we were fast friends. We laughed at the same things; we had a certain chemistry. And yet we drifted apart. We went to different colleges, took different paths in life and lost touch. Would it be the same if we were to meet again? Probably not, and more's the pity.

Friendships are mutable and elastic. They sometimes change, just as we change. They can also be wrecked -- Epstein recounts an old and valued friendship with an academic who, as years went by, came to have irreconcilably different political views from his. Friendships must survive politics and religion, but also marriage and family, careers and middle age. Life intervenes. Friendship, Epstein writes, "invokes much discourse about loyalty, trust, intimacy, confession, soulfulness, betrayal, and other large and highflying matters. But ... in most friendships many of these things are never, even after decades, called into play."

A friendship doesn't entail a checklist of virtues. "Once one has set up such a list," Epstein writes, "there is the distinct possibility that one cannot oneself measure up to it.'' Instead, friendship rests on "something much simpler: talk and, going on beneath the talk, understanding, preferably easy, immediate understanding." Women do it better than men, whose interests are usually to project themselves rather than to know the other person. It's hardly an accident that men come to confide in women more than in other men. But not just any woman. The more driven and ambitious the woman, the less a man will confide in her. She has become too much like a man, and most men see enough of their fellows as it is.

I could tell my daughter that some of those 100 friends are getting a free pass, but wouldn't. She'll learn that soon enough. If she's lucky, she'll also learn what many of us don't -- that we have fewer friends than we imagine, but more than we know.

(Michael Skube, who teaches at Elon University, won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

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