Monday, April 28, 2008

Strangers with Books

Some people view every stranger they meet as a potential friend. They have no qualms about stopping someone on the street to ask a question or even start a conversation.

Not me.

I don’t even like to ask for directions. Some might call me shy or guarded. Others might say “socially inept.” Nearly every interaction seems fraught with awkwardness. (How many times a WEEK does someone come up beside me on the street and say, “Hi!” or “How are you?” and when I turn and automatically respond, “Hi,” or “Fine, how are y--” I see they are talking on their cellphone to someone ELSE and either glaring at me for interrupting their conversation or laughing and rolling their eyes because I thought they were speaking to me? Now that’s awkward.)

So it’s rare when I’ll initiate a conversation with a stranger beyond “Can I pet your dog?” (I’m still smarting from the woman who reared back and said in a frosty voice, “I’d RAWWW-THER you not!”) or “Oh, I read that book too! Do you like it?”

That happens less often than you might think. We’re not exactly a nation of readers. Occasionally I’ll see someone with a thick paperback romance or science fiction novel (genres I seldom read) but almost never see anyone holding a current bestseller -- much less a children’s book. Once in a blue moon I will see a kid reading a book and of course I’m dying to know what they think of it. But can you imagine a lone middle-aged male sidling up to a kid and asking, “Hey, whatcha reading?” ...Uh, not a good idea.

I’m thinking about these things because of an experience I had yesterday.

I went out to lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant with an unpronounceable name -- Qdoba. (I used to go to another one called Quetzalcoatl. What’s wrong with a name like “Taco Bell”?)

As always, I had a book with me. This time it was STREAMS OF BABEL, a brand new suspense novel by a recent favorite of mine, Carol Plum-Ucci.

At the table in front of me were two women with several kids. Now here’s a secret about shy (withdrawn...socially inept) people: as much as we like to be left alone, there’s also a part of us that secretly wishes we could somehow be included in the group that’s laughing and talking together. When I first sit down with a book, part of me is reading the words on the page, but the other part is always eavesdropping on the other conversations around me. So yesterday my concentration shifted between the novel STREAMS OF BABEL and the streams of babble around me, as I listened to one of the women at the other table saying, “It was so funny! He was lying there sound asleep snoring. So we started taking pictures of him sleeping..and then other people started taking pictures of US taking pictures of HIM!” I tried to imagine what THAT incident was all about, but then their conversation turned to whether they should go to Dairy Queen after lunch and my focus shifted to Cora and Owen and the other characters in the book, whose families may have been impacted by bioterrorism. I didn’t even notice the people at the other table getting up until I heard someone say, “Can I ask what book you’re reading?” and saw one of the women bending over my table.

I (awkwardly) lifted up the book so she could see the cover. “Oh, I really like her books,” said the woman. “What’s this one about?

I was so startled to think that a complete stranger would also know a relatively-new young adult novelist like Carol Plum-Ucci, that I barely knew what to say. “It’s about terrorism,” I said. “It just came out.”

One of the kids pointed at the woman and said, “She works in a bookstore.” I said, “Which one?” and she said, “Borders” and then they were gone.

I felt so angry at myself as they left the restaurant. How many times in my life would I ever encounter someone who also knew Carol Plum-Ucci and her books? Why didn’t I talk up the book more -- make it so compelling that she’d want to run out and get a copy too? Why didn’t I ask which Plum-Ucci books she liked best?

If do-overs were allowed, I’d ask her which Carol Plum-Ucci books she’d read. I’d say, “Wasn’t THE BODY OF CHRISTOPHER CREED the BEST combination of literary novel and page-turning mystery ever? Weren’t you glad when it got a Printz Honor? What did you think of THE SHE and WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER? Did you think they were good, but a maybe a little overwritten? And wasn’t it hard to put down THE NIGHT MY SISTER WENT MISSING? I was up half the night reading that one. This new book is really great, so far. I’m only on page 60, but I’m already loving it. You’ve got to get a copy! Next time you come in here, look for me so we can discuss it!”

But do-overs aren’t allowed in conversations and by then the lady was long gone. Every potential friend I meet remains a stranger.

Maybe I’ll see her again at the unpronounceable restaurant. If I do, I’ll ask if she’s read the book yet. In fact, from now on, if I ever see anyone reading a young adult or children’s book in public, I’m going to force myself to approach them. And if you ever see someone reading a young adult book in public, I hope you’ll do the same. It will probably be me. The guy behind the book.


Anonymous said...

I've had some missed opportunities with strangers and books as well. Once I was on the subway and a very precocious 11-year-old boy (with cheetos crumbs all around his mouth) asked me what I was reading. It was A High Wind in Jamaica, and he seemed really interested as I described the book. I really wish I had given this kid the book, since I could always get another. This was probably 8 years ago!

But don't beat yourself up about this! It sounds like a quick exchange, not the place for a long conversation.

P. J. Grath said...

I was you for decades. Never initiated conversations with strangers, avoided eye contact, pretended to be so absorbed in my book I didn't even notice people around me, while all along I was very aware in just the ways you describe. The first summer I had my own bookstore, I would start every morning with my stomach in knots: "I'm going to have to talk to strangers!" About year four I started to notice how shy other people are. The majority of Americans describe themselves as shy. People would come in hesitatingly, avoid eye contact (just like me!), slink around the side of the store, and feign surprise at finding anyone at the counter. My dog (the old one) was an ice-breaker. People too shy to look at or speak to me would address the dog: "Oh, hello, sweetheart! What's your name?" It was years of this that finally made me realize that most people (unless they're with friends, and then they're bolder) are just like you and me: they need a friendly smile, a nonthreatening conversational opener, a few minutes to collect themselves. It's really lovely when you realize you have it in you to make someone else's day with a positive encounter. The more you do it, the easier it will get. Promise!

Linda said...

Hi Peter,

Really related to this story!

Whenever I see someone carrying a book -- any book -- I try every way possible to maneuver to see what title it is!! But, like you, I rarely, if ever, engage the stranger in conversation about it. I'll have to change that after reading your post. I've felt the same way. Books are such a precious, and possibly diminishing, resource. Anything we can do, person to person, to reinforce reading is super important IMO.

The children's book (8-12 yo range) I have been carrying around and enjoying reading is Bitter Tastes by V.B. Rosendahl. It's a story about an 11 yo, Kathy, who desperately wants to fit into her new school. The author has revived the good old-fashioned mystery, a la Nancy Drew. I can't wait to see what happens in the end -- almost there.

Thanks for writing such an open and expressive post!


Anonymous said...

What a great book that would make! In fact, you could turn it into a mystery if you wanted to. Bookish, shy kid who happens to notice someone reading a favorite book on a bus or in a restaurant or at a park or on the beach. And then.... But it's your book - I'll leave it up to you.

Yeah, I've never gotten over that habit of wanting to see what someone's reading - even a block away. Or, for that matter, going to someone's home for the first time and heading right for their bookcase. It's an old reflex.