Friday, January 20, 2012

Probably Should've Read It First

People like to talk about books. It’s common ground. You may know absolutely nothing about the person sitting next to you on the plane, but you’ve read the book they’re reading. Instant conversation starter. Find out that you share the same opinions on the plot points and character development? Best-ies for life. Or, for the very least, the duration of the flight.

Even if you are not the kind of person who enjoys mid-air chats with strangers, you probably can’t prevent someone from talking to you about your reading material if it’s something they’ve read, as well. The reason for this is very simple. The book may have gone through a plethora of stages before ending up in your lap -- author to agent to editor to publisher -- all these different hands involved in making what you now hold. But this fades away once you’ve read it.

The story touched you and now it’s yours.

Which for some, depending on personality and level of connection to the book, makes it nearly impossible not to discuss it when you spot a person who may share your feelings. This leads to a great many conversations with the potential for immediate connection or soul-sucking awkwardness. Even with the SSA risks, many find it difficult to forgo the chance to chat about something that is simultaneously personal and communal.

I do offer one friendly warning: Be careful of exercising ownership over books you have not actually read.*

Last spring, I went to see a production of Les Miserables. Needless to say, the soundtrack has been playing, on and off, in my head ever since. Particularly now that there are more articles coming out about the movie version.

Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men!

Yeah. I hear you. Now, if you could stop singing them in my cranium, I would greatly appreciate it.

I went to use the restroom at intermission. The line was characteristically daunting, but I prevailed! A fact that I am extremely grateful for, otherwise I would have missed the following conversation between the two women behind me.

Woman 1: “The play does a really good job of squeezing a lot of the book’s plot in. They definitely left stuff out, but you’d have to. It’s like making War and Peace into a play. The book is huge.”

Woman 2: “Oh, you’ve read Les Mis?”

Woman 1: (pause) “No, but I’ve seen it and.... it’s like.... a really big book.”

I’m assuming that Woman 1’s thought process was, Uh oh, this person actually read the book. I’m not going to know what to say when she starts talking about it. Better come clean. Woman 2 had not, in fact, read the book, her boyfriend had. She wasn’t going to quiz Woman 1, but merely confirm that she heard the book was quite intimidating.

When Woman 1 realized this she prolonged the awkward exchange, trying to explain that she has always wanted to read Les Mis. Really. She just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

Finally, the line came to an end and these two strangers were able to go their separate ways, both probably equally relieved. And leaving me with a shining example of why, as tempting as it is to claim intellectual prowess through literature, it’s generally better to wait until you have the opportunity to discuss a book you actually have read.

* OK, don’t really be too careful about this. Such caution would severely limit overhearing conversations like the one found above. Which would be less fun.

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