Be prepared

So what do you want to talk about today?  How about Alexander Selkirk?

The first question may strike you as odd, but it’s as worth pondering over breakfast as what you’d like for dinner.  Simply asking it will sharpen your awareness of your world and what intrigues you in it.  And when it comes to that next encounter, be it at the coffee stand, over the watercooler, or warming up before a boardroom slam dance, you’ll have a distinct advantage.

To love conversation is to appreciate that every person you meet is a portal to another world, that every encounter is a potential adventure.  It can make you happy because it fills life with possibilities – whether shooting the breeze with strangers, or resolving dilemmas, whether burnishing ideas or aceing job interviews.

Conversation also provides, in one neat package, five things scientists consider essential to wellbeing: it keeps us active, curious, and generous, it helps us learn, and, most important of all, it connects with our environment and the people in it.  By neat coincidence, it keeps our brains nimble at finding connections between ideas.

If the primary qualification of a conversationalist is an open mind, second is to come prepared, like a good scout, with topics to spark those connections.

So here is my humble topical offering.

Three hundred years ago today, Alexander Selkirk was rescued from a desert island.

Who he?

He was the mutinous sailor dumped on an island 470 miles off the coast of Chile after an argument with his ship’s captain.  His retrieval five years later (possibly on a Friday) inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, which is widely considered the first novel.  Mind you, this revolutionary literary birth enjoyed a long incubation, emerging ten years later in 1719.

This factoid should help you make conversational whoopee anywhere you go.  Who doesn’t love Robinson Crusoe?  Who hasn’t shared Crusoe’s thrill on sighting the first alien footprint (Man Friday’s) – almost as exciting as the divine hand that silenced Belshazzer’s feast, with its writing on the wall.

It has the added virtue of trailing a further potential subject: reading.  After all, who has actually read Robinson Crusoe?  Don’t we know this tale by  its multi-media reincarnations?  In our increasingly text-averse world, might it be that, three centuries after the event that seeded the  novel, this literary form may be on its last legs?

Alternatively, this could prompt a discussion about how to talk about books you haven’t read.  Which as you may know, is such a burning issue that Pierre Bayard has written a book of that very title.  Which in turn prompted Henry Hitchings to produce another tome, How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.  

There’s a lot to talk about, I think you’ll agree.  At least books aren’t dead yet.


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