My Human Library: How I Started Reading My Friends
If I had a super power it would be the ability to read people like books. I mean, teleportation or shooting lasers from my eyes would definitely be fun for a while, but there’s something uniquely attractive to me about understanding the mechanics of being human. Strangers on the street are endlessly fascinating because they represent lifetimes that I will never know or appear in except for that brief moment when our times and spaces happen to intersect. This is a story about how I attempt to realize this odd little dream.
It began, as some things do, with an uneventful summer, a cute boy, and The Name of the Wind.
I happened upon The Name of the Wind, the fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, during a slightly desperate attempt to seem casual on a pseudo first date. He was a twenty-one-year-old college dropout, a free and easy spirit with a slight Punk Rock aesthetic—making him insurmountably incomprehensible to me with my high-strung, college freshman anxiety. I quickly scanned the first few pages, picking up some key words and phrases, and cobbled together more enthusiastic praise for the book than I had felt at the time. His ecstatic reaction, however, registered in my slowly pooling grey matter as solid conversational ground to stand on. He felt a strong connection to this book, and had read it over a hundred times. I bought it soon after at a second-hand bookstore, but since I’m a procrastinator to the core, my copy remained untouched for the rest of the summer.
When I finally picked up the book in a fit of nostalgia a few months later, it completely won me over. But, more than that, reading the novel felt… weirdly familiar. You know how after a while a couple starts to resemble each other? I thought something similar had happened to that boy with the book… Except I don’t just mean a resemblance to the protagonist (though I could definitely see where he had adopted Kvothe’s characteristics). The sense of similarity ran deeper, permeating the prose and the style of the narrative. It was like, all at once, I had a much deeper understanding of who he was, like I was reading his life story as opposed to that of a fictional character.
In a way I suppose, this is makes sense, since the stories of our lives shape the people we become. And what are the books we have read and loved but another memory, another story of our lives, as much a part of us as the stories of our first day at school or our past relationships? When we truly immerse ourselves in fiction, we live the events of the story as if they were happening to us. The suspense, the heartbreak, the happiness, the love—they are as real to us as our own uncertain existence.
I recently came across an article in the Boston Globe titled Why Fiction is Good for You. I’ll summarize the important bits: basically, we allow ourselves a vulnerability when reading fiction that we don’t permit with non-fiction. We view news or history or politics with a critical eye that the blatant lies of fiction easily evade. “We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape”. We know through ample research that fiction affects our psychology, particularly the way in which we experience empathy toward other human beings. It stands to reason, therefore, that the books we choose to represent us are a record of our lives in development.
Over the past two years, I’ve been collecting and reading the stories in which my friends see themselves. Perhaps it’s a testament to the people I choose to associate with, but these books are consistently speculative fiction. One thing that surprised me, though, was the speed and conviction with which many people chose the book that I was to read them through. While in my experience the common bibliophile reacts with debilitating paralysis to the words “what is your favourite book”, as if the questioner was asking them to murder all but one of their children, it seems that they understood I was asking for something different. Not a judgement of merit, but a memory from their own lives. Some titles were old friends (The Hobbit, Harry Potter) and others were fascinating strangers (The Angel’s Game, Gormenghast). In every instance it allowed for unique insight into the lives of some incredible people I feel fortunate to know.
-contributed by Amy Wang