At 18, I moved from a rural mountain town to Chicago for college. I knew nothing and was still grappling with the fact that everything I'd known, everything I'd been used to in high school and as a child, was over-- the people I'd grown up alongside had all moved on. With new roommates and friends, I was withdrawn and spent a lot of time in the halls of the Harold Washington Library. By pure chance, I stumbled across The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and chose to read it based on the cover art. It ended up becoming one of the most influential books in my life.
It focuses on the idea of temporality and belonging. Throughout our lives, we brush against the lives of others, sharing wisdom, experience, intimacy and heartache, unconsciously changing one another no matter how long we spend together. Yet we always leave one another because we have no control over our own lives. Life is a fragile thing, especially when we are young and it is in flux, and how we begin is almost never how we end. At the same time, we so frequently worry about whether we fit in or belong, trying to figure out whether we can really connect to the people around us. That fear, that hesitance, is what holds us away. The main character of the book is in a place where he is legally barred from socializing with a people that he is so desperately curious about, but he manages to make them love him anyway through whatever channels he can.
I started spending a lot of time observing other people, seeing where their lives took them. I went on many late-night walks by myself, just looking at lights in the windows and thinking about who was there, what their lives were like and what circumstances brought them there. This period of my life led me to a great love of talking with strangers-- I will strike up a conversation with literally anyone. I have learned so much about what it means to be human from simple conversations with people on a street corner, with a barista who is having a hard day, with a doorman who knows more about Lower Wacker Drive than I do. This book opened the door to my empathy for others, and it has changed the way I perceive everything."