The Best Strangers in the World: Sto­ries from a Life Spent Listening

  • Review
By – March 20, 2023

Amer­i­cans have yet to con­front just how pro­found­ly the past few years have altered our sense of what it means to be a cit­i­zen of this coun­try and, on a deep­er lev­el, human beings in the world. There is con­sen­sus that the pan­dem­ic” — by which we mean not just a pub­lic health cri­sis, but a series of over­lap­ping polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al crises near-unpar­al­leled in our shared his­to­ry — has changed some­thing about our social fab­ric and col­lec­tive sense of self. But what does this mean for us in the present, and, more impor­tant­ly, in the future? In his inti­mate and self-reflec­tive mem­oir, Best Strangers in the World, Nation­al Pub­lic Radio’s Ari Shapiro attempts to answer these ques­tions, dis­play­ing peo­ple at their best and offer­ing glimpses of our endur­ing human­i­ty dur­ing deeply dehu­man­iz­ing moments.

Much of Shapiro’s debut book obeys the exi­gen­cies of a tra­di­tion­al mem­oir, in that he reflects on his child­hood, love life, and career tra­jec­to­ry. His prose is acces­si­ble and moves between reg­is­ters eas­i­ly, rang­ing from the humor­ous­ly self-dep­re­cat­ing to the ele­giac and trag­ic. Shapiro is at his most poignant in three cen­tral chap­ters towards the end of the mem­oir. In The Best Strangers in the World,” he close­ly fol­lows the par­al­lel paths of two Syr­i­an refugees seek­ing asy­lum. Monz­er, who risks his life to one day reunite with his fam­i­ly in Ger­many, and Mohammed, who is relo­cat­ed with­out his fam­i­ly to the Amer­i­can South, are both wel­comed in by a group of young Con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian men on the eve of the Trump pres­i­den­cy. Shapiro moves between describ­ing his detached hor­ror at the impact of war on fam­i­lies and focus­ing on the stub­born­ly, glo­ri­ous­ly human aspects of these men’s jour­neys. His time as a war cor­re­spon­dent leads him to ques­tion whether he is equal­ly naïve about the grow­ing divi­sions in [his] own coun­try,” such that he resolves to explore the US with the same curios­i­ty that I had approached oth­er coun­tries dur­ing my time abroad.” 

Like­wise, in two espe­cial­ly mov­ing chap­ters, The Whole World Falls In” and You Can’t Kill Me. I’m an Idea. I’m Time­less.,” Shapiro explores his con­nec­tion to gay faeries. He includes the awe-inspir­ing sto­ry of one of his men­tors com­ing out at sev­en­ty years old, as well as his expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing the Pulse Night­club shoot­ing. Shapiro’s reflec­tions on gay men of his gen­er­a­tion nav­i­gat­ing their life tra­jec­to­ries and find­ing com­mu­ni­ty are also deeply affect­ing, whether he’s reflect­ing on hate mail from read­ers (“Dear Ari, Please Butch up”), the ear­ly days of gay mar­riage (“As I wrote a para­graph about them, I thought of the impor­tance of using the word fam­i­ly to describe a gay cou­ple and their adopt­ed son”), or what Andy Tobias called the Best lit­tle boy in the world” syn­drome. Par­tic­u­lar­ly emo­tion­al are his descrip­tions of the bou­quets donat­ed to munic­i­pal town halls in Cal­i­for­nia in the ear­ly days of gay mar­riage. And then there is Shapiro’s cool lack of sur­prise when, after the ini­tial struc­ture for gay mar­riage in Cal­i­for­nia is repealed, he receives a let­ter rescind­ing his marriage.

This book will be of inter­est to any­one seek­ing to bet­ter under­stand the human faces behind inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism in the Unit­ed States today — par­tic­u­lar­ly those of the hard-hit gen­er­a­tion of gay men in Amer­i­ca who’ve large­ly been left with­out men­tors or lead­ers in the wake of the AIDS cri­sis. Shapiro, for one, is deter­mined to be a part of a new gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists, with the pow­er to nudge our indus­try and shape it from the inside” and to help rewrite the nar­ra­tive, one in which gay sto­ries could actu­al­ly have hap­py endings.”

What makes Shapiro’s mem­oir so remark­able is its meta-reflec­tion about his place in the world and his growth as a human being. His com­ing-of-age sto­ry — retold through his rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple — leaves the read­er with a renewed sense of hope. He quotes Poland’s head rab­bi, who is lead­ing ini­tia­tives to reset­tle Ukrain­ian refugees: His­to­ry is impor­tant, but it does not dic­tate the future. We dic­tate the future.” 

This is not sim­ply a re-report­ing of inter­views already cov­ered by NPR. Instead, Shapiro is com­mit­ted to dream­ing the cul­ture for­ward and cre­at­ing the world we want it to be” — just like the rad­i­cal faerie move­ment he so admires. He is con­tribut­ing to a nec­es­sary pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion, cen­ter­ing voic­es that make us beau­ti­ful­ly, imper­fect­ly human.

Joshua Krucht­en is an edu­ca­tor and cur­rent doc­tor­al can­di­date at NYU spe­cial­iz­ing in the lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry of ear­ly mod­ern Europe.

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