Chance Encounters, Human Connection, Real Books and Kindle

Waiting for a flight at an airport can be a dull and lonely thing. Sitting at a half-empty terminal last week, these costs evaporated when I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was reading Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant historical work “The Guns of August”. Recognizing the book by its cover, I said as I sat down “That’s a magnificent book”.

His eyes lit up: “It *is* magnificent”. Off we went into a discussion of French military strategy, Kaiser Wilhelm’s sense of cultural inferiority, British diplomacy and the nature of war. On we rambled to Tuchman’s other books, the foreign policy of President Kennedy (Guns of August was his favorite book) and then to our own lives. It turned out that he was an orthopedic surgeon in the Army. This triggered another discussion about modern warfare injuries, far forward medicine, our experiences in Iraq, and the problems facing wounded veterans.

The flight was called. The time had flown and I was sorry to go. I thanked him for his service and boarded my flight, happy that a chance human connection had lessened the isolation of travel for both of us.

Reflecting upon this experience later, I realized that the only reason the conversation started was that he had a physical book with a recognizable cover in his hands. I have participated and observed many such animated exchanges on buses, planes, trains and park benches over the years. They all started in roughly the same way: The sighting by one party of a familiar book, a comment about the volume and then, a chance pleasant connection between strangers.

As we move from real books to Kindles and the like, seeing what the person across the way is perusing becomes much more difficult. It’s all a shiny text screen to anyone but the reader. There are advantages I am sure, for example fewer interruptions for those who want to read silently and in peace without engaging their neighbors. But I am sorry anyway, as it seems to me another way that our new electronic technologies isolate us from the people in our physical presence.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.