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TAC Bookshelf: Why It’s Time to Talk to Strangers

Bradley J. Birzer, scholar at large: One of the greatest joys of writing is getting to read what one wants about a specific topic. In my case, that means delving over and over again (for well over 20 years now) into the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and, one of the least known Inklings, Lord David Cecil. In his own day, Cecil (1902-1986) was a world-renowned biographer and, at least prior to the 1960s, as well known around the globe as Lewis and Tolkien. He wrote with as much perception and wit as one might expect, given his closest friends and their desire to remake the world into something beautiful. In his The Fine Art of Reading, Cecil warned against making literature only an academic study. “Moreover, to read these books for information is not to read them with the purpose that their authors intended,” he explained of high literature. “Art is not like mathematics or philosophy. It is a subjective, sensual, and highly personal activity in which facts and ideas are the servants of fancy and feeling; and the artists first aim is not truth but the light.” If there is a 20th-century figure who better needs a rediscovery, I have yet to encounter him. If you’re interested in his biographies, start with The Stricken Deer, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, or The Young Melbourne. And if I haven’t convinced you yet, consider this: one of his best essays, dating back to the early 1930s, is called “The Art of Cursing.”

In another realm altogether, I am reading one of the best newer books I’ve read in a long time, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games (2012). Ostensibly a history of the rise of fantasy role-playing games in the 1970s, such as Dungeons and Dragons, the book is actually about free will, fate, and cultural norms and derivations. In a painstakingly researched and beautifully written and argued fashion, Peterson describes the sometimes surreal, sometimes goofy, and always fascinating and intelligent subcultures that sprang up in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s around games such as Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg. While the book is not political, Peterson’s brief chapter on what wargamers thought of hippies in the late 1960s had me laughing out loud. Not surprisingly, wargamers have often seen themselves as protecting and preserving the romantic defenses of home, hearth, and civilization. Peterson goes well beyond a simple narrative of wargaming, though, delving deep into statistics and probability as well as necessary influences on role playing, such as the pulps of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

Emile A. Doak, TAC’s senior development associate: One of the joys of having a 10-month-old daughter is rediscovering the classic children’s books that shaped my own childhood. Her interest in the stories may right now be limited to attempts to eat the pages, but for mom and dad the bedtime routine is a chance to revisit the likes of Corduroy, Goodnight Moon, The Little Engine That Could, Go Dog Go, The Very Hungry Caterpillar…the list goes on. There is wisdom in these stories. The simple narratives speak to deeper themes of belonging, accomplishment, and self-esteem that are vital to the exciting, confusing time of childhood.

And yet there’s one book on my daughter’s shelf whose message I can’t help but find dubious in our modern age: Never Talk to Strangers, by Irma Joyce. The story proceeds through a series of clever rhyming couplets describing children encountering anthropomorphic animals in various mundane circumstances. The conclusion in each instance, indeed the moral of the story, is found in the book’s title: never talk to strangers.

The second half of the story defines “stranger,” emphasizing that the otherwise unknown anthropomorphic animals are okay to talk to if they are introduced to you by a trusted source: your father, your teacher, and so on. The impetus behind writing a children’s book like this is obvious enough. “Stranger danger” is all too real, as the tragic prevalence of child abduction and abuse can attest. Never Talk to Strangers is not new: it was written over 40 years ago, and as its back cover indicates, its message is “more timely and important than ever,” especially considering the dangers to children posed by the internet.

But there has to be a better solution than teaching our children that it’s virtuous to ignore the other people they encounter—especially as our society becomes ever more atomized and disconnected. Our juvenile protagonists throughout Never Talk to Strangers are reminded to invoke the title’s admonition on such innocuous occasions as “a coyote asks if you know the time,” “you are waiting for a bus and behind you stands a rhinoceros,” and “you are shopping in a store and a spotted leopard leaps through the door.” The effect of this is a society in which other people, whom we will inevitably encounter despite our best attempts to stay glued to a screen, are relegated to some utilitarian purpose. Do we make eye contact with our barista? Do we really want an answer to the obligatory “how are you?” we offer at the grocery store checkout—that is, if we offer it at all?

The “never talk to strangers” mantra that we teach our children is a symptom of how we’ve ordered our society. Everything from our economy to our built environment discourages the spontaneous encounter. The very idea of a placed “community” has become foreign as technology allows us to interact with ever more specialized groups. While our communities are increasingly placeless, we are nevertheless required to live in places, rendering the number of “strangers” we may encounter on a daily basis larger than ever before. Joyce’s juvenile protagonists won’t do much talking in the America of 2019.

I don’t want my daughter to develop a naiveté about the real dangers posed by bad actors in our community. But I also don’t want her to develop such cynicism about mankind that she reflexively ignores her fellow human beings. We owe it to strangers to smile, to offer a sincere greeting—in other words, to recognize their humanity. It’s time we talked to strangers.

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