I can't remember a time when my life didn't revolve around books. There's a picture of me at a family gathering, sitting alone on the couch with an oversized book in my lap, at the tender age of two. My mom used to drop whatever she was doing to read to me, because I would interrupt her with a book in my hand. Often I would ask her to read the same book again. We read The Party That Grew four times in a row one day. When I was seven, I tried to teach myself to read one book with each eye. Not much has changed; I just checked my phone and I am carrying no fewer than six audiobooks, forty-one e-books (with sixteen more on my tablet), and about a thousand news articles. Not to mention a physical library book. I hope books aren't the very meaning and substance of my life, but it's starting to look that way.
I'm not an introvert, but I play one on TV. I'm a shy extrovert, and I'm awkward in many social settings. I like meeting people and being in groups as long as I feel like I understand the group dynamic. I absolutely understand the innate preference for the company of a good book rather than some random stranger. The known versus the unknown. The comfort of sitting in the GO AWAY I'M READING bubble. The inherent attraction of the book itself. The book, I can choose. The stranger, not so much. I don't have to read annoying books, but I do sometimes have to interact with annoying people.
What I've started to realize is that everything I love about books is something to love about other people, as well. Unimpressive cover art may be hiding a fascinating story underneath. I might be swept away by a story that didn't seem all that interesting at first. This may be my first encounter with a singular voice unlike any I've known before. I'm going to learn something I never knew. For a short while, I can slip into another perspective and learn about life from another point of view.
Books are each the unique product of another human being's experience. This was brought home to me recently on a plane flight. The woman next to me asked me what I did, and when I told her I was a writer, she immediately asked me if I knew any ghostwriters. "That's the question of someone with a story to tell," I said. Sure enough, she had, and if she sold it, it could be a blockbuster. She had grown up in the world of boxing, had a picture of herself as a young girl with Muhammad Ali, knew some mafia figures, had traveled all around the world, and now judged dog shows. I asked her if she had ever ridden a camel, as a random guess, and she said yes! To think, my plan for that flight had been to finish a true crime book I was reading. Nothing whatsoever about my seat-mate's external appearance would have led me to guess any of the wild stories she carried inside.
Reading is like listening. We passively sit back and absorb the story, asking only that it hold our attention. Listening can be like reading. We can actively seek out a listening experience, anticipating that it will be interesting and worth our time. Maybe it will be fascinating. Maybe it will be so totally absorbing that we forget the passage of time. Maybe listening to this story can change our lives.
As a budding novelist, I've started to see listening to strangers as a supremely valuable opportunity. The better I get at my quest to be a world-class listener, the better I get at drawing great stories from unlikely sources. I'm not a naturally confident networker. I'd far, far rather stand at the sidelines and observe the proceedings. What I've started to try to do is to see myself as a rescuer of fellow shy people. If I see someone else who looks as uncomfortable as I feel, I will go over and try to break the ice. As long as we're both stuck there, we can spend a few minutes together. Maybe we can each get a book recommendation out of the conversation. Maybe this person is one of the roughly forty percent of introverts in our society, and a one-on-one conversation would be preferable to trying to mingle with a dozen strangers. Maybe this fellow shy person is an extrovert like me, who only needs a bit of encouragement to open up. Maybe we have all sorts of things in common, and maybe we can make friends.
When I say that books are people, I mean that they are mere artifacts of another human mind. Getting to know a book is inextricably linked to getting to know another person's perspective and manner of expression. Anything we can enjoy from reading can also be extracted from conversation, with enough imagination and skill. What I'm really saying is that people are books, waiting to be discovered and read attentively.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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