Talking to Strangers

Talking to StrangersTalking to Strangers (subtitled What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know) was published late last year. Of all the books by Malcolm Gladwell, of which I believe I’ve read all but one as of today, this is decidedly my favorite. I have recently become fervently interested in communication and this book encompasses that very concept in relation to how humans interact with each other.

I must admit that this book does cover some, what I consider, heavier subjects. Humanity has not treated itself very well throughout history. He does bounce around between subjects, but he masterfully ties them all together as is his modus operandi.

The book is centered around the arrest of Sandra Bland. Gladwell incorporates fascinating  information about policing, intelligence agencies, alcohol, and other topics such as rape. He covers psychologies and the tendency to default-to-truth. I believe he ties these all together tighter than the subjects of his other books, which are equally interesting. The bottom line tends to be that we as a species, even incorporating differences between societies and even after thousands of years of development, are not even close to being able to communicate without a plethora of barriers. These are often preconceptions or implicit biases that may guide us to believe one thing and miss the mark (often completely).

The past few years have shown me that communication is essential. Within the workplace, it can expedite solutions to complex problems when done effectively, and when done poorly can create complex problems from a simple task. Communication is essential to understanding each other. Unfortunately, we see primarily divisive information online today. Huge gaps in political ideology and social subjects. I don’t believe we have more problems than we have had in the past. I just believe we are more aware of every little thing that is happening because we can access it and share it at any second of any day with the tiny computers in our pockets.

Even though we do have access to the sum of humanities knowledge, we often only see a partial narrative. Anyone who is unable to see beyond that partial narrative, or chooses not to, is simply (by definition) ignorant. I learned more about recent headline news from this book than I did at the time the events were happening. This is partially because I did not go looking for additional information on the cases in question. However, I was aware of them prior to reading this book. Primarily the cases of Brock Turner and Sandra Bland. I have a better understanding of these events and am glad of this despite the unsettling nature of how they happened.

Gladwell does well, as he almost always does, in distancing himself from the narrative and preventing any personal bias to enter his prose. He admits one such bias in this book but without that admission we would not have known the passion he has for that particular event.

He also did something quite interesting with this book. I listened to the audiobook version which he reads himself. He structured this audiobook to be similar in a few aspects to a podcast. He uses recordings of interviews when possible to let us hear the person’s voice instead of Gladwell quoting them. He also has re-enactments done of court hearings and interrogations. This, within a book about communication, improved the experience. I recommend the audiobook version if you have access to one. I borrowed it from my library though I did have a long wait before it was my turn.

I hope you add this book to your list or pick it up soon to read or listen to. It encourages us to think about the way we interact with strangers and even friends. It dares us to do better while also letting us know that it is not our fault, or anyone’s, if we fail to understand each other whether upon first meeting or decades later. I hope to do better and communicate more effectively. Perhaps doing so will eliminate some of the bad we see in the world. Perhaps it will make only my own life a bit easier and hopefully brighter.

As for you, reader, I want to thank you for reading my words and taking in my intent to communicate my belief that this book is informative and enthralling. At least, it was for me, and I hope it will be for you.

Happy Reading.

How Audiobooks Allow Me To Read More Diversely

I never had anything against audiobooks. I just never tried one. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the medium, and to be entirely honest, I wasn’t sure why. My main reason was because I love reading physical books. I love holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, reading the print on paper. There is just something magical about it, and it remains my preferred medium for reading.

Another reason I think I was hesitant about trying audiobooks was because there are a lot of factors that go into them that I believed may alter my experience of the book. Would I like the voice reading the book? Would they do different voices for each character? These questions stem from other readers’ experiences. I follow a few book-related groups on social media and some of these topics had come up. Some preferred one reader while others stated they didn’t like others. Some discussed many different readers for the same book. Then it hit me.

Audiobooks are like an in-between of movies and books. With a book, you imagine the voices and build the scenes in your head as your brain interprets the words into images. Movies do all of the imagination for you. They provide the characters and dialogue and locations and scenes. Everything is done and you can just sit back and enjoy. But have you ever seen a movie based on a book you’ve read and just thought “Hmm, I didn’t picture that character as looking like that” or “I pictured that building/location totally different in my head”? Audiobooks do only a bit of the work while letting you keep much of the imagination. You listen, and the voices may be provided, but you get to conjure up the locations and action sequences.

I tried my first audiobook about six months ago. It was a book of nonfiction that I greatly enjoyed. There were two reason I chose this book to start with. One, it was read by the author, Neil Gaiman, who I knew had a great voice I could listen to forever. Two, it was a collection of speeches, introductions, articles, etc., so it was split up into short sections and I could easily listen to one or two on my commute.

What I discovered was that with nonfiction you could zone-out or get distracted for a moment without missing valuable information. Of course, since it is an audiobook, I could easily rewind a bit to listen to any part I miss, but usually I never needed to. I could pick up anything I missed from context.

I don’t zone out often when listening. I only say this because I started listening to audiobooks during times I would normally listen to music or was doing something physical that didn’t require much attention. I first started listening during my commute to and from work. I now use that 30-40 minutes a day consuming a book instead of listening to a mindless radio show or to music. I then started listening to audiobooks when doing yardwork. I would normally listen to music. This is another handful of hours each month that have been transitioned from music to books. I will listen to them when going on walks (I absolutely need to go on more walks). I have even listened to audiobooks while taking a shower.

Audiobooks have allowed me to increase my reading and make better use of my time. Mainly the time I otherwise would spend without getting much out of it. Now I can learn more and “read” more by letting my mind consume material when my body is busy doing something else.

I have not yet listened to fiction. My weird agreement with myself is that I will keep reading fiction through physical books. Mainly because I know I retain more when reading it on the page versus listening. It is easier to follow characters when you see their name (how it spelled can be important) versus listening to it. Also, I’m afraid I may miss something important. Like if I were landscaping when a crazy plot twist happens. I like to focus my full attention to stories I can really get into. I’m not saying you can’t get into nonfiction. I’m just saying you are less likely to have an insane plot twist in a history book.

Also, though I do like memoirs and histories, I don’t read them as often I would like. I read mainly fiction. Therefore, audiobooks allow me to read more nonfiction than I normally would. So far I’ve read an additional ten books this year simply because I started listening to audiobooks. I’m slowly going through most of Malcolm Gladwell’s books via audiobook. Every one so far has been narrated by the author and have been extremely interesting. I’m currently listening to Educated by Tara Westover.

Audiobooks can be extremely expensive, but I have yet to purchase one. I listen to audiobooks through the Libby app on my phone, and I have borrowed each audiobook through either my local library or my university library. I wanted to start using my libraries more and buy fewer books. Not only does it save money, it saves space (tsundoku), and most libraries have a great audiobook collection.

Of course, stories and many histories were passed down orally for hundreds or thousands of years before being written down or lost. Audiobooks are kind of like modern bards, right? Instead of going to a gathering and listening to someone tell the story in real-time, we are able to choose whichever story we want with a tap and listen to bits and pieces whenever we wish. We can pause them as often as we like.

Imagine living thousands of years ago listening to a story surrounded by your entire village and standing up to ask the bard to stop where he is because you need to go to bed. As if the world centered around you. It wouldn’t happen. You’d have to have someone fill you in or simply miss that part of the story. Nowadays, you simply keep your headphones in wherever you go and pause it if something comes up (the world still doesn’t center around you). Technology can be useful. I wish I would have started using audiobooks a long time ago.