An encounter on Tuesday night has had me thinking about first impressions, in a not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover sense. In my experience, this phrase almost always refers to people rather than books (emphasis on the almost), but despite how often I’ve heard it I still find myself surprised by my own preconceptions about both people and books.
A few days ago, my wife and I were at a pub trying some unique local brews (it’s Craft Beer Week, apparently), when a seemingly inebriated man sat down beside us. He didn’t appear to be your average barfly, and he was fairly young compared to us, but something in his manner as he commented on the type of glass containing our drinks gave us both the idea that things might get a little awkward. The glasses were stout, had stems and were meant for a Belgian weiss style of beer; he referred to them as sippy cups.
We were polite and laughed with him a bit, then returned to our private conversation. He continued to talk to us, though, and what followed was a surprisingly interesting discussion of mental illness, addiction and stigma in which he—a complete stranger who was not as intoxicated as we first assumed—bared intimate details of his life and personal struggles he has been facing since childhood. We heard him out, shared some things about ourselves and left feeling like we had made a real connection. We also felt a little guilty about our negative first reactions.
The encounter has stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about other times when I may have misjudged a person, or even a book, too quickly. I might be at risk of trivializing the above experience, but there have been quite a few books where preconceived ideas left me disappointed, or conversely where I found myself discouraged at first but completely in love by the end. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has an opaque POV at first, but proved to be ultimately captivating. Likewise with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which admittedly took a few tries but opened my eyes to a whole universe of science fiction. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews seemed (to my then grad student self) to be just another purple literary piece, but became the most touching story I have ever read (I admit I cried more than once). I can’t count how many times I have recommended this book to friends and customers at the neighborhood book store where I used to work.
I don’t believe the comparison is trivial, for stories are like relationships; we can only realize them fully by suspending judgment and embracing what is larger than ourselves.
If you have any similar experiences feel free to comment and share them.