Let's Talk Literature: 6 Books That Are Great Conversation Starters

I was seventeen and reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson at a café near my New Jersey home, expecting a quiet afternoon to myself. Instead, I was interrupted mid-chapter. A fellow leaned over and asked me how I liked the book so far. We began talking about it, and pretty soon we were talking about other books we liked, films we liked, and soon, just about our lives in general. I didn’t finish the book that day as I had planned, but I did engage in a really surprising, delightful conversation. This connection-by-choice, the approach, and getting to talk to someone about the book I was reading was a natural high. Back then, I didn’t know I’d eventually be a book seller, but I did recognize that people tended to be more drawn to me when I was talking about something that excited me.

Whenever I see people reading books I love or am interested in reading, I make it a point to ask them about it. I love seeing their faces light up when they tell me they are genuinely enjoying the book, versus the struggle and strain that takes over when they aren’t sure how they feel about it. Because I love when it happens to me, I’ve compiled a list of the books that I’ve found are the best to read in public if you want to be approached by a fellow book lover.

1. Any required reading from high school

You know the ones: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, The Catcher in the Rye. You might have slugged through these books and relied a bit too heavily on SparkNotes when you were 16, but it’s worth giving these books a second look, especially if you’re looking for a literary connection out in the world. The titles are super recognizable, so you’re guaranteed at least a second look from that cute fellow sitting across from you. The standard conversation starters you’ll get are 1. “I haven’t thought about that book since high school!” 2. “Ugh, I was totally forced to read that.” 3. “Why would you put yourself through that again?” In response, you can sing the book’s praises and suggest this person give it another go. From there, move on to exchanging a few awkward high school tales.


2. 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' by Haruki Murakami

I know so many people who have been meaning to read Murakami, but they don't seem to ever get around to it. For some reason, these people have collectively chosen The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle out of all his books to purchase and place on their bookshelves to collect dust. I bet if you sit in a café with this book, at least one person will come up to you and say they’ve been meaning to read Murakami, and that book in particular. They will, of course, ask how it is, which is the easiest conversation starter of all time. And hey, you’ll finally be reading Murakami yourself!


3. 'Tampa' by Alissa Nutting

You will definitely get some glances from strangers when reading Tampa, regardless of whether you have the hardcover of paperback edition. The hardcover is black and white and fuzzy to the touch, and the paperback features an extreme close up of a shirt buttonhole, which looks an awful lot like…womanhood. Brave souls may strike up a conversation with you, but you will probably have to take initiative here. Based on someone’s look, say something along the lines of, “I know what it looks like, and yeah, it’s exactly what it looks like.” Everyone I know who has read this book has strong opinions about it, so expect to be approached by those who have already read it, too.


4. 'My Dirty Dumb Eyes' by Lisa Hanawalt

The book’s cover alone is intriguing: a dog with airplanes and helicopters coming out of its eyes. If you read this for the first time in public, you’re going to burst out in laughter, make insane faces, and, without a doubt, draw glances from others. Hanawalt references films, public figures, and there is a particularly hilarious panel featuring Jackson Pollack. You can flip through this book and laugh your head off with someone new and go off on tons of different tangents.


5. Anything by Michael Pollan

Food Rules. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Botany of Desire. People are really into talking about food, diets, health, and allergies. The vegetarian lifestyle. Plants. Pollan writes very well on these topics, and I’m sure you’ll make a ton of “friends” reading his books in public. I can’t tell you for sure that they’ll be friends you’ll keep, but I foresee interesting conversation. There will most likely be a few strong opinions thrown at you, so be prepared to listen. Who knows, you may find a kindred food spirit! Not to mention, you’ll learn something new along the way.


6. 'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed

If you’re in the mood for a deep, life-altering conversation with someone you have yet to meet, sit somewhere with the cover of Tiny Beautiful Things on display. I read this on the subway in New York City and had people approach and tell me how much it moved them. I also cried openly while reading it on the subway, and no one even noticed (but I suppose that is the nature of the NYC subway!). Expect anything from passing comments to someone sitting down next to you and recounting an epic, earth-shatteringly emotional story akin to one of the letters featured in the book. You will probably field the question, “Oh my gosh I love Cheryl Strayed! Have you read Wild?” more than once. Just know that with this one, you’ll definitely be talking about more than just books.

Reading in public is great for meeting people, but also for reminding people to read themselves! Spread the literary love.

Have you ever been approached while reading? Let’s hear about it!

Christine J. Schmidt

Column by Christine J. Schmidt

Christine J. Schmidt is a writer originally from New Jersey. After receiving her BFA in Dramatic Writing from SUNY Purchase, she worked at Seattle Repertory Theatre as their artistic literary intern. She recently left Brooklyn, where she was a bookseller and events host at WORD, to reside in Los Angeles. She has previously written for New York Theatre Review, and her plays have been read and produced at theaters in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Washington. Coffee is her favorite thing.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 25, 2014 - 6:41am

Yes I can see Wind Up Bird. I wanted to check that one out, cause this one guy that studies survival horror mentioned it was similar to Silent Hill ...

Which I happened to be a really big fan of. Not the movies, haven't seen those.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine August 25, 2014 - 7:06am

I feel like any guy who approaches a woman reading Tampa is going to come off like a creep.

Christine J. Schmidt's picture
Christine J. Schmidt from Los Angeles, CA August 25, 2014 - 8:40am

Or, given the subject matter, any older woman approaching a younger man reading Tampa will come off as a creep! 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago August 25, 2014 - 10:01am

Wind-Up Bird wil do it every time, as will most Murakami works.  Good list.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King August 25, 2014 - 1:35pm

So...it's mostly just about having an alarming cover?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 25, 2014 - 2:34pm

Someone in public asks me what I'm reading, I hold up the book so they can see it, shifting my fingers to not obscure the title and author. Conversation usuallly does not ensue.

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman August 25, 2014 - 6:27pm

I'm reading Wind Up Bird right now.

Christine J. Schmidt's picture
Christine J. Schmidt from Los Angeles, CA August 25, 2014 - 8:18pm

@Nathaniel, it definitely helps! However, that only really applies to 2 of the options.

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies August 27, 2014 - 3:27am

When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on a vacation a few years back, people would not leave me alone about it. Mostly women.