Thursday, July 22, 2010

Walk fast, talk fast.

I think I've figured out a surefire way to meet new people. I mean, besides just walking up to a stranger and saying hello; it's a perfect segue to conversation. My secret is reading.

Let me digress for a minute: lately, on the internet and in talks with friends, I've been discussing thoughtful pieces on cultivating lasting friendships, meeting new people (friend- or dating-wise) without using the somewhat soulless staging of the internet, and making friends after you're done with the naturally social setting of school. As someone who was the perpetual New Girl growing up, I've been through all sorts of trials and tribulations in making friends - but practice makes perfect, right? So, I've dashed away any shyness when it comes to meeting new people. But there's something about making friends with strangers you know you already share at least one mutual interest - without even speaking to them yet.

All of this led up to today's morning commute. I was making my usual transfer from one train to another, and made my way to the door, where a fashionably dressed girl with bright red lipstick stood aside for me to get off. As I passed her with all the other bustling passengers, I noticed she was reading Christopher Pike's The Lost Mind. I paused for a millisecond before I had to continue on, lest I hold up the train and the other gruff commuters - but if I had the time to stop, I would have inquired as to why she was reading the book, and if it was because she had liked Pike books so much as an adolescent like me, or maybe after reading the trite Twilight series she was in need of trying out more substantial young-adult fare?

The point is: I would have said something and that may have led to a conversation, and maybe she wears red lipstick like me because she digs vintage 40s pinups and also Gwen Stefani, or maybe we go to the same bars sometimes and never ran into each other. Or, she could just smile and nod at me, totally nonplussed by my surprise that a 20-something was reading Pike on the subway.

And yes, I'm a total book nerd, and we're not all book nerds, but it's that one segue you need to spark a conversation between yourself and a stranger. It's happened to me several times while living in New York, and it's always: books.

With other areas of interests, it's not as easy to gather the pertinent information. Nobody talks during movies, and unless you're at a special screening of a classic you love or you see someone wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a line from your favourite movie of all time - you don't have an easy way to say "Hey." It's slightly easier with music - you could meet someone at a concert, though everyone's usually there with other people and, you know, it's loud. But there could be a quiet moment near the bar or in line on the way in. Forget that scene from 500 Days of Summer where Summer hears Tom listening to The Smiths on the elevator and starts talking to him: 1) music being blasted so loud in someone's ears that those nearby can hear it is super obnoxious and 2) there's no easy way to see what people are listening to without being the creep staring really hard at their iPod display.

But reading.

A lot of people might think reading is an especially private endeavor - unless you're being read to, you don't read the same thing with anyone else at the same time, right? But public reading is a different story. You can gather what others are reading displayed on the covers - whether in a Starbucks, at Barnes and Noble, at the library (though you have to remain quiet!), or, as most often in my case: on the subway.

Three years ago, I was reading Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker on the F train heading to meet someone for dinner. I was flipping the pages, reading contentedly, when the young man sitting next to me said, "Tom Robbins?" I looked up and saw a very nice face (I would even say model-nice) as he continued - "I can tell because of the illustrations between sections," pointing at the open book. "Yeah, it's my first Tom Robbins - I really like it." He smiled and said, "I love his stuff, you should definitely check out more." Then it was my stop, and maybe if I wasn't already intensely into the man I'd been dating for a month at the time - the man who told me to read Still Life - then maybe I'd've passed along my e-mail or stayed an extra stop to continue talking.

Another time, I peered over at the girl next to me as she opened a new book, and I read along with her the first few sentences of The Time Traveler's Wife - and those few sentences were enough for me to go out and get the book the next time I went to the bookstore. I wish I could thank that girl now!

Just last week there was a girl sitting across from me reading the totally awesome and yes, very fantasy, novel A Game of Thrones. When I was getting off the train, I got her attention and said "I love that series!" and gave her a thumbs up and a wave (nerd-style) and she smiled back enthusiastically. I've done this many a time - for those books where I think I'm the only person reading it. I think I've mostly gotten these types of exclamations in return when I read comic books - I've just started reading Runaways, so we'll see what the next few days bring.

When my book club was reading War and Peace earlier this year, I'm 99.9% sure fellow member Jaime got a shout-out on Missed Connections because of it. The ad described a tall, blonde woman who had been reading the giant novel War and Peace and that he would've said hi, but he didn't want to distract her. I sent it to Jaime and asked her if she'd been on the specific train at that time the night before, and she confirmed it.

I know it's easy to read on the subway every day, and that it's harder without a metro nearby to just go out in public and read amongst others - but I think it's definitely a way to instantly know one very small thing about someone else. And with that, making an attempt at conversation is far easier than without. Though I haven't exactly made any best friends out of my fellow subway readers, that's mostly because I don't really have time to cultivate new friendships - what with having a husband, six bestest friends, and many other friends and activities. But when ever Jesse and I leave New York and move to a new place, you bet I'll be reading in public, hoping for a stranger to pop up reading 2666 or maybe a Didion collection.

Have you ever stopped someone because of what they were reading? Have you ever been been stopped? Tell me your stories!


  1. That sounds like a good idea, unfortunately I'm prone to reading on my deck or in bed, so not much traffic there haha. I always see girls at bars who are dressed super cute and I think 'we could totally be friends!' but there is really no good way to pickup a new bestie without looking a little weird.

  2. Loved this post, Jessica. I've had people comment on the book I'm reading now and again, sometimes it's led to conversations, other times just a smile and a nod. My favorite, though, was the guy on the street a few weeks ago who just pointed at me and loudly shouted "LUNCH POEMS!" as I walked by reading Frank O'Hara. I turned around, smiled, shouted "YES!" back at him, and then walked on.

  3. I can relate to this - I commute on the train every day and I am never without a book. I've enjoyed many discussions with strangers about books but I've not made any friends. If I was looking to make friends, I'd definitely use reading as a way to do it :)
    So did you read any other Tom Robbins books? He makes me swoon. Still Life is one of my favourites but Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is my all-time fave.

  4. I love this post. It is so different to make friends after school is over, isn't it?

    I recently joined a gym in our area and I was shy for the first couple of weeks. Now, however, after seeing the same faces a few times I have just gone up to these girls and said hi. I feel like we will become friends, and it feels good to have that! It takes a big moment of courage though, even for someone like me who isn't super shy.

  5. On a side note, I wonder if I feel like we are good friends because you have mastered the art of being friendly. From that first time I met you when you were dating Steve I just felt very comfortable around you- which I also told him at the time. Anyway, it is super cool that you have that ability!

  6. Sarah - I hear ya. Perhaps compliment something the girl is wearing? Or ask where she got something? Ha.

    Zan - HAHA! That sounds hilarious! I actually thought of you while writing this post since we started ACTUALLY hanging out after our initial meeting over Anna Karenina and subsequent books! I'm going to count it.

    Hillary - I've only read Jitterbug Perfume besides Still Life - I need to get on Even Cowgirls, I know!

    Sabrina - Yeah! Go for that moment of courage! Haha, and thanks, I am pretty open to most people when I first meet them (unless I get a creep vibe, haha).

  7. Jessica- Here by way of Ang's Reader. Love this post. Everything from the cover of that New Yorker (which I can't bear to throw out) to the idea that we're brought together by what we do alone in public. Incidentally, I picked up the Time Traveler's Wife because I liked the cover and the name of it while sitting across from an English woman reading it en route to Siena. My favorite. I've been stopped reading American Gods and Harry Potters 4 and 7. I love it. I clearly need to pick up Tom Collins...that's a new one for me.

  8. Earlier today I was reading Glamorama on a bench outside and was thinking about how awesome it would be if a cute hipster boy came up to me and commented on the book I was reading.

    Excellent post!!

  9. Being a librarian, I'm always obsessively looking at what other people are reading in a (hopefully) non-creepy way.

    I have definitely started conversations over seeing someone reading a book I liked and vice versa.

    And I have to say I got excited when you mentioned Game of Thrones b/c I just finished it like two weeks ago and loved it. :)

  10. I read the Game of Thrones too!! Greatttt series. Next time you come to Philly, we need to discuss books and meeting people! :)

  11. I love looking at what others are reading. Sometimes I find myself craning my neck just a little too hard, or I'm afraid that I might freak them out a bit, but as you well know, it's so hard not to look. I stood in Barnes and Noble in Asheville this past weekend and had a great conversation with someone over a book we both picked up at the same time. Turned out we had the exact same impressions of all the author's previous work. It was really great to connect with a stranger for those few minutes.

    I just picked up Runaways! I'm starting it tonight!

  12. Wait--scratch that. I meant Runaway by Alice Munro.

  13. I've always found books bring people together - i've had many occasions where a book has turned someone from an aquaintance into a friend. At the office i work in, a bunch of 4 or 5 of us slowly became better and better friends just by loaning each other books that we were reading and loved - now we have a sort of unofficial book club going and we love it. The most recent book we've read is called Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and we're still talking about it two weeks later. Great read, highly recommended! Ps Jessica - i have ordered several of your recommendations (House of Spirits, Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe, Millenium series) and am looking forward to reading them soon.

  14. This has happened to me on the T many times. Most recently a girl my age asked me about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest. We ended up talking for a good 20 minutes on the T.

    I also love love love reading and talking about books so I'm not shy to ask people about what they are reading on the t

  15. Sounds like you're a CoverSpy without even realizing it! Check out New York, largely on the subway, based And a confession: this agent definitely has a crush on every cute boy she spies reading 2666.

  16. I was reading a book on student loans/ repaying loans in Barnes and Noble the other day and an older man came over and suggested joining the national guard as they are good at loan forgiveness and such. It was a nice gesture.

  17. I wish I was better at stopping people (I tend to be shy) but I have if we're sharing the same space and I've read what they are too. Sometimes we'll have a quick chat but usually it ends there. I would love to see if one day it goes beyond that too.