In many ways, The odyssey is a story of talking to strangers. As Odysseus returns home after the Trojan War, he meets new people, some hospitable, others violent. He relies on these new connections for shelter, but he also tries to get to know them, telling his own story and asking to hear theirs.
The experience of sharing so much with someone you don’t know is rare. Many of us never speak with most of those we see around us; we really get to know even less. As the writer Joe Keohane explains in his book The power of strangers, this aversion is rooted in social norms (talking with strangers just isn’t done) and the complexities of human psychology (we tend to underestimate how much we’ll love strangers – or them, us) . But Keohane’s book also emphasizes a second point: talking with strangers is good for us. The practice can bring a sense of comfort and belonging, positive emotions that we miss when we remain silent. Author Kio Stark echoes this argument in When strangers meet, and provides advice on how to initiate such conversations. In an era characterized by widespread loneliness, which graphic novelist Kristen Radtke explores in I’m looking for you, these connections are needed more than ever.
Yiyun Li, who has written many books about lonely and excluded people, doesn’t always talk with strangers, but looks at their faces. Looking at those around her, she tries to imagine their lives and the parts of themselves they keep hidden. This kind of gaze is also a vital part of her writing process: Li imaginatively traverses intimate territory with her own characters looking deeply at fictional people as she does with strangers.
Every Friday at the Books Briefing, we slip on together Atlantic stories about books that share similar ideas. Do you know of any other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward this email to them.
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What we read
The odyssey and the other
“What consolation – or despair – lies in the unexpected relevance of this ancient poem, its encounters with otherness highlighted by the xenophobia of our time? Is it a lasting human trait to doubt the humanity of the other? “
The surprising benefits of talking to strangers
“Time and time again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, more mentally sharp, healthier, less alone, and more confident and optimistic. Yet … many of us are wary of these interactions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic has so severely limited our social lives. “
Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic
How to talk to strangers
“A meeting with a stranger is an ‘exquisite interruption’ of all the expectations you had about your day. Go to work, and you know who you’ll see. Go out with friends and you know what to expect. But engage with a stranger, and at least something interesting might happen.
Extract of I’m looking for you, by Kristen Radtke. Copyright © 2021 by Kristen Radtke. Extracted with permission from the Pantheon. All rights reserved.
Why do we despise lonely people?
“Through vivid images of people fumbling with house keys late at night, falling asleep in the subway, walking out of a liquor store, [Kristen] Radtke shows how recognizable and universal loneliness is, but also how easy it is to escape the loneliness of others, to turn theirs into an experience incompatible with our own.
An uncomfortable tip for honest writing
“I look at people all the time, because I like to imagine their life by looking at their faces, by looking at their eyes. You can say so much about it just on a person’s face.
About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she reads next is Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters.
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