A Window Into All Worlds It has taken me half a century to figure it out, but I now know how to start a conversation with anyone. It worked again on Saturday. I was in a room with total strangers; people I had just met and knew nothing about. I eventually got an opening to ask the question that never fails to make a friend: What are you reading?
The 60’ish woman across the table instantly became animated. “Unbroken,” she said, referring to Laura Hillenbrand’s new and widely praised book about a World War II hero. I had an immediate connection and just as fast an insight into my new reading friend. You can’t long be a stranger to a person who is opening up about the books they love and why.
The burly guy in the photo is a big time reader, too. Pat Conroy’s new little book My Reading Life tells the story of how the best selling author of Prince of Tides and The Great Santini became a great writer by becoming a great reader. For anyone who loves books, its a good page turner.
Conroy’s survey of reading and the bookish life ranges over the enduring importance of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, touches Dickens, praises Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey, proclaims War and Peace history’s greatest novel, explores the wonders of a really good used book store and, most of all, praises his book consuming mother for her lasting influence on his reading and writing.
“Reading great books,” Conroy says, “gave me unlimited access to people I never would have met, cities I couldn’t visit, mountain ranges I would never lay eyes on, or rivers I would never swim. Through books I fought bravely in wars of both attrition and conquest. Before I ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary – I could form a sweet-smelling corps de ballet composed of the women I have loved in books.” Good stuff.
I’ve also discovered that my simple question works to not start a conversation with someone I may be well advised to avoid. When you ask, “what are you reading,” and get the standard brush off response of “I just don’t have time to read” or “I read so much in my work,” it may be time to move on.
I still have the first book I can remember my father reading to me. He had written his name in the front cover when Warren Harding was in the White House. I read the book to my sons and it is just one of thousands of books I love. The Story of the Bold Tin Soldier, that first book, certainly isn’t Faulkner, but it started me on a reading life and that has made all the difference.