Your Reading Life

Finding Common Ground Through the Written Word

I had a profound realization recently when acquiring a new stereo for my car. Sick of my dependency on the radio and the inability to connect to any mp3-playing-device, I decided to Yelp local car stereo installers. The top three all quoted me hundreds of dollars for something that my friends promised me shouldn’t cost more than seventy bucks.

That’s when I came across Sammy’s Stereos (name changed), which had decent reviews but also the word “sketchy” in italics in every other comment.

“Fifty bucks,” a thick Russian accent quoted me over the phone. “Come here.”

When a Russian tells you to do something, you do it.

I followed my GPS to a corner car repair station in the Valley that had no sign but did have three loud Russian men playing cards on a rickety table outside. As I pulled up, they all turned and glared at me.

“Um… I’m here for Sammy?” I asked.

They pointed inside. I parked as they set down their cards and surrounded my car, arms crossed, murmuring to one another in Russian.

Sammy was in the very back behind a large, imposing wood desk. He was as thick as he was Russian. When I came in, a tiny bell went off.

“Come here!” he barked.

The fluorescent lights flickered. I waded through boxes of unopened stereo equipment. A loose wire coiled around my ankle like a snake and I had to stifle back a scream. I vaguely wondered if my boyfriend would figure out how to track my soon-to-be-murdered body. My mom would want something to bury.

Sammy nodded at a plastic chair. “Sit.”

I sat.

And that’s when I saw it. On the bookshelf next to us, surrounded by auto manuals, was Harry Potter in Russian: Garri Potter I filosofskii kamen. I breathed a sigh of relief. There was no way this man could be a bad person. He read Harry Potter.

I was naïve, maybe. But at least I no longer wanted to bolt.

“You’re Russian,” I commented after Sammy listened to my car concerns.

He nodded. “Yes.”

“All I know about Russians is that they drink vodka.”

“You want vodka?” Sammy stood and shouted for his three comrades, then bent down and took out two large jugs of an unmarked clear liquid. “We take shots!”

“No, no!” I cried, “I just meant. . .”

But when four Russian men surround you, urging you to take a shot of their “special brew,” you do as you’re told. You take a shot. And everyone cheers. You get some pats on the back that leave car grease stains all over your new shirt. This is how, I learned, you can become an honorary Russian.

As the three employees installed my new stereo for less than the price of the actual machine – cementing my belief that it fell “off the back of a truck” – Sammy and I compared our favorite parts of Harry Potter. According to Sammy, the principles of “hard work” and “good moral judgment” Dumbledore installed in Harry were, of course, Russian. We agreed Snape was awesome, and we both loved Sirius Black.

This is why I love books. While Sammy and I did not share a common ancestry or even language, we both shared an appreciation for a good story. We didn’t have to agree with one another’s opinions to respect one another. Thanks to Harry Potter, my Russian stereo savior and I reached a common ground.

When it was time for me to pay up and leave, I asked Sammy for book recommendations. Were there any Russian books that had recently been translated to English that he might suggest?

Sammy shrugged as he handed me my receipt. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really like Danielle Steel. You’ve heard of her, no?”

Family Album is her best,” spoke up one of his employees.

“No, Toxic Bachelors!” shouted another.

I left the Russians fighting with one another over their favorite trashy romance novels, their hard consonants louder than my car engine. They shared a language, but they did not share an opinion. Then again, I disagreed with them all. I was no fan of Danielle Steel. But I wasn’t about to start another Cold War over it.

Have you ever experienced something like this, where a book helped you bridge boundaries? Tell us in a comment!

About the Author

EMILY ANSARA BAINES is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative literary magazine and AngeLingo. She graduated with honors from USC, where she studied creative writing under Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle. One day Emily will live in Paris and speak French while wearing a beret, but these days she makes do with hiding out in the bookstores of Los Angeles. Her favorite word is murmur. Visit Emily online on Twitter @LiteraryQueen.
  • N

    What a great read!