Encounters With Strangers

21 Oct

When I overhear people talking about something I can relate to, I have a strong urge to join in. But as I’ve mentioned before, I typically hold back, assuming that others wouldn’t truly appreciate input from a total stranger. My sometimes exception to this rule relates to giving directions- if I see people who look totally lost and are pointing at a map, I feel perfectly fine asking if they need help.

But I broke my rule a couple days ago. I was in a bookstore, rummaging around, when I overheard a woman asking the owner if he had books by a certain French author. The problem was, she couldn’t remember the author’s name. So, the customer and the owner began a guessing game to see if they could figure it out. This of course stirred up the former French major that lives inside me, and I started to play along, too, from a couple aisles away. She finally mentioned a specific book title, and it all clicked. Of course! She was talking about Emile Zola!

I didn’t have a chance to rush over and solve her mystery (to the rescue!) because she actually remembered the author’s name a few seconds later and blurted it out. But for some reason, I still felt the need to join the conversation. Something moved me to remark out loud that I had been wondering whether she was talking about Zola. And then I followed her to the part of the store where the owner said his Zola novels rested. Because you see, I wrote my college thesis on Zola. In fact, my thesis’ main focus was the very book she wanted to buy. I still get a weird rush of excitement when I see anything about the book, or even just see the book on the shelf. And part of me wanted to talk to this woman about why she wanted to read that specific book.

I felt a little weird dashing across the store with this total stranger, and felt the need to explain myself. I told her I really loved Zola and wanted to see what the store had. That seemed fair enough, so she nodded. But then when she pulled down the actual book- the wonderful The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames, en francais)- I just had to talk to her about it. I told her it was a fantastic book. Minimal reply on her end. I told her it was something I really loved. Slight reply. I told her it had so many layers of story and social commentary. Cha ching! That got her interested, and we chatted for a bit about Zola and his style.

But, at some point, it felt weird to keep talking. I knew the time had come to move on, so I wished her happy reading and started browsing books on art. And I thought to myself about just how badly I had wanted to talk to her about that darn book. I think it was due to a couple of things. Number 1, of course, is my love for that book. But number 2… I think that as humans, we have strong urges toward relating to others. Even people who strive to stand out have their own construct of acceptance and understanding. What I was looking for with this woman in the bookstore was a moment of shared understanding- a moment where we talked about why we were interested in the book and what we hoped to get out of it. I wanted to reveal to her all the hidden layers of that novel, those layers that I peeled away in my thesis. I didn’t get the chance to do that (though I’ll gladly lecture YOU about it if you’d like!). But I still got some joy out of the encounter, because it just made me so happy to see someone else excited about reading one of my favorite books. Even though we didn’t have a long, deep conversation about the book and its meaning- I realized that just sharing an appreciation for the book felt very, very good.

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