guest post: Melinda Blau, co-author of Consequential Strangers

I met journalist and author Melinda Blau online a few weeks ago. She commented on a post on Follow The Reader, Kat Meyer and Charlotte Abbott's blog. After I read the post and started down the list of comments, I recognized Melinda's name in the comments as one of two authors of a book I'm selling this summer from W.W. Norton, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem To Matter. I found her on Twitter and started following her. Soon enough, we were having an actual phone call to talk about our mutual interests in social networking, the world of bookstores and publishing, and how the world of publicising books has changed.

In addition to the dozen other books she's written, Melinda is also blogging for Psychology Today and on the Web site for Consequential Strangers.

I ended the call by asking if she would put together a blog post for my3books about three books that she found useful and/or inspirational when she was working on Consequential Strangers, which (by the way) is coming out in August 2009.


My three books are naturally non-fiction - it’s mostly what I read and it’s what I write. This sometimes upsets my friends, especially when I write about a topic that doesn’t interest them. Inevitably, they suggest, “Hey, why don’t you write a juicy novel next?” While I have tremendous respect for authors who can create whole worlds out of their heads, my answer is this: “Nothing I could make up is more spectacular than the stories I hear from real people.”

I digress, but only slightly – I’ll get to that point again. John asked me to think of three books that inspired me, or propelled me, as I was writing my latest book, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter, which is an exploration of how people outside our family and close friends affect our success and well being. I read widely in service of this project, but here are three very different kinds of books that stand out.


Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places
edited by Calvin Morrill, David A. Snow, and Cindy White
University of California Press | 9780520245235 | $21.95 | Aug 2005

Together Alone showed me that was I was onto something. It is a highly readable collection of ethnographic studies, focusing on social interactions that occur in strip bars and gyms, softball fields and university student centers. The book makes the paradigm-changing point that casual relationships can also have moments of intimacy and emotional dependence. Not surprisingly, it was cited in the 2005 New York Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue. I can’t help but think that collective consciousness was at work here, too because Together Alone was being compiled around the time that my academic collaborator, Karen Fingerman, coined the term consequential strangers to describe what sociologists call “weak ties.”


Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393335286 | $17.95 | Aug 2009

Loneliness is, in a way, the flip side of Consequential Strangers. Fortunately, the authors were a year ahead of me, so I was able to include ideas from the book and from my several interviews with Cacioppo, who has been researching the effects of social isolation for the last twenty years. (In a wonderful "small world" story his coauthor, William Patrick, was one of my consequential strangers. He had edited my first book years earlier when he was at Addison-Wesley.)

Pulling together Cacioppo’s research, as well as numerous other fascinating studies, the book documents the science of loneliness. What I love most is the weight given to connection, posited here as a basic human need, right up there with hunger or thirst. When we lack social ties, we experience the dangerous physical and emotional effects of loneliness. Fortunately, as both our books stress, we are not doomed to stay there.


Both Sides Now: One Man’s Journey Through Womanhood
by Dhillon Khosla
Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin | 9781585424726 | $26.95 | Mar 2006 (Out of Print)

Both Sides Now is a touching and painful memoir published in 2006, as I was casting about for real-life examples to illustrate the fact that consequential strangers allow us to try on new personas. I suspected that anyone who transitioned from sexy blond women to handsome, well-built guy would be a good – albeit extreme – example.

As it turned out, people in Khosla’s outer circles – co-workers, a bartender – accepted his new male identity before his loved ones did. I didn’t end up using Khosla’s story but his book is well-written and riveting and it certainly fits my you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up theory!