Book excerpt: “The Best Strangers in the World” by Ari Shapiro
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In his new memoir, “The Best Strangers in the World” (Harper One, to be published March 21), Ari Shapiro, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” writes of a life in journalism, and music, and what they have in common.
Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Rita Braver’s interview with Ari Shapiro on “CBS Sunday Morning” March 19!
“The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening” by Ari Shapiro
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My first journalism gig, in 2001, was as an intern to NPR’s legendary legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who is still a friend and mentor. She’s the dean of the Supreme Court press corps and a force to be reckoned with. One of the most valuable lessons she taught me during my internship: “Grow a pair!”
Years after that internship, I became NPR’s Justice correspondent, working alongside Nina to cover major investigations and federal trials. People would often ask, “Do you want to be the next Nina Totenberg?” I always gave the tongue-in-cheek reply, “No, I want to be the first Ari Shapiro.” I said it with a laugh, aware of how presumptuous it sounded. And I never would have admitted this at the time, but … I wasn’t really joking. I didn’t know what it might mean to be “the first Ari Shapiro.” But I knew that I wanted to do something that felt new.
Since 2015 I’ve been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, a role in which I’ve interviewed world leaders and narrowly avoided fatal explosions. And for more than a decade, I’ve also toured the globe with the band Pink Martini, performing in venues from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. At first I didn’t see a common thread. In fact, the band felt a bit like an affair I was having on the side. (Though really, how secret can the affair be when it literally plays out onstage in front of thousands of people?) My different projects felt meaningful, but I couldn’t put my finger on what they shared. There was always an audience. There was always a story, whether it was told through journalism or music. And in the best moments, there was also connection.
I can see now that, as the self-reinforcing bubbles we live in become more impenetrable, I keep seeking out ways to help people listen to one another. As algorithms pull us into feedback loops and congratulate us for dunking on perceived opponents, Pink Martini goes to Texas and performs songs in Farsi and Arabic to an audience that might see Persians or Arabs as suspect. Crowds in Istanbul clap along with us to songs in Greek, and in Seoul they dance to our rendition of a Japanese tune.
In my work at NPR, I have traveled to rural Louisiana, where guards at a federal prison were struggling during a government shutdown—working without pay, sleeping on cots at the prison because they didn’t have gas money to commute to and from home. And when one of those men told me through tears that he couldn’t afford to buy a gift for his son’s birthday, people from around the country who heard his story emailed and tweeted at us, asking how they could send toys. They didn’t ask whom he supported for president or how he felt about immigration or guns. They saw him as a father who cared about his son.
Later that same year, I went to rural Mississippi to tell a different story of struggle, about undocumented chicken plant workers who had been caught up in the biggest work-site immigration raid in US history. And listeners responded the same way. They asked what they could do to help.
Of course, my mission isn’t entirely selfless. When my grandma Sylvia turned ninety, the whole family flew to Chicago to celebrate. She presided over the party in her blonde wig and false eyelashes, staples of her look since her days as a carnival fortune-teller. Each of her children described their own nuclear families for the assembled relatives. When it was my mother’s turn, she got up to talk about her three sons. There was Dan, the oldest, an inventor and start-up tech CEO. She introduced my younger brother, Joseph, a university professor studying environmental economics. “And then there’s Ari,” she said, “who was so ignored as a middle child that he had to go find a job where millions of people would pay attention to him every day.”
My mom got a big laugh. I was dumbfounded. Was that why I had made a career as a journalist? Is that why I host a nightly news program? Is the totality of my professional life just one long bid for attention?
“Really, I was neglected?” I asked her later. “I don’t think you and Dad ignored me.”
“You don’t remember that rash on your face?”
I flashed to my third-grade school portrait in Fargo. A child with a bowl haircut, in an Ernie-style striped shirt, grinning wildly through an eczema-induced facial disfigurement.
“We ignored it for weeks,” my mom said, “and by the time we finally took you to the pediatrician, it was infected.” Maybe she was onto something.
Years later, the Spanish author Javier Cercas told me, “Probably you are on the radio because you want to be loved.” We were in the middle of an interview, and I had never met the man before.
So, yeah, I liked being the kid in front of the classroom with the menorah and the dreidel. I liked being the only teenager at school with a gay Pride symbol on his backpack. I get a rush from hearing the roar of thousands as I walk on the stage at a music festival in Casablanca, and I feel a thrill when someone in a restaurant leans over to my table and says they recognize my voice from the radio.
But more than that—I like handing the microphone to someone else, whose voice wouldn’t otherwise be heard. To a survivor of political violence in Zimbabwe, or a Venezuelan migrant walking hundreds of miles through the mountains of Colombia. I like introducing you to them, and bringing their experiences into your life.
I’m Ari Shapiro, and I like that people listen to me. I like having a megaphone, and sharing it, and holding you rapt when I do it. Particularly in our distraction-filled lives, the fact that millions of people have given me their attention over the years—that you are giving me your attention now, in these pages—is not something I take for granted. I mean it when I say, Thank you for listening.
That phrase, Thank you for listening, can serve many purposes. I think of it as the shalom of journalism. It can mean hello, goodbye, peace, and it is also my go-to response to listener hate mail. In that respect it’s a bit like Bless your heart. Let me explain:
I’ve always considered hate mail to be a badge of honor. My first paid job at NPR, after that internship for Nina, was as a temporary editorial assistant on Morning Edition. One of my duties was to go through the show’s email inbox and forward listener messages to the correspondents. I became intimately familiar with the taxonomy of hate mail. There were partisan messages, nitpicky ones, misogynistic ones. (NPR was one of the first news organizations to put women on the front lines covering wars, and the first to hire a woman to anchor a nationally broadcast nightly news program, Susan Stamberg on All Things Considered.)
I dutifully forwarded all those messages. And if a listener wasn’t writing in about a particular correspondent but, rather, ranting about our programming in general, I would anonymously respond on behalf of the show, ending my generic reply with “Thank you for listening.”
When I started reporting my own stories for NPR and getting my own hate mail, it felt like a sign that I had finally arrived. I savored it. I started to keep a file folder of the ones that came on actual paper. And after the arrival of Twitter, I created a photo album on my phone for screen grabs of hate tweets. (I have another photo album for genuinely kind fan mail, for days when I need a pick-me-up.)
By the time I became a host of All Things Considered and graduated from a cubicle to an office, I decided that it was time for the world to see the best of these messages. The side of my office bookshelf faces an interior window at NPR headquarters. So I taped some of my favorite letters to the window-facing side of the bookshelf. This was inspired by something Susan Stamberg used to do. Her office door was plastered with letters from people who misspelled her name. Susan Strombag, Stormbridge, Stembage …
People waiting to meet with me in my office could kill time reading these messages. There’s one from a man (they’re usually men) who called me a “faggy, pushy, annoying smart-ass.” Another comes from a listener who told me I made his “hair hurt” by referring to “the Queen of England.” (“The person of interest is, officially, ‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith,” this listener explained.) One letter writer wanted to inform me that a man may be “hanged,” and he may be “hung,” but the two words have very different meanings. And there is one letter from a person who objected so strongly to the way I pronounced data that they felt compelled to write in and let me know that “each time you say DATTA (which was MANY times) it is as if you want to slap your listeners.”
My all-time favorite listener letter isn’t on that wall, though. It is a postcard that arrived the first time I guest-hosted Morning Edition, more than a decade ago. The one that really made me feel like I was on the path to figuring out what it meant to be the first Ari Shapiro, and not just the next Nina Totenberg. The postcard has a picture of tulips, and the stamps are doves of peace. It reads (punctuation and capitalization as written):
Dear Ari, Please Butch up.
I find a daily dose of your personality, annoying.
I’m a person too.
D. Emerson, Miami, Fl
I framed it when it arrived, and it has sat in a place of pride on my desk ever since, as I have steadfastly refused to butch up year after year. I don’t know who D. Emerson is. I don’t know their gender, though one can assume. I’m sure he had no idea that his postcard would have such staying power. He included no return address, so I’ve never been able to contact him. If I could, I would simply tell Mr. Emerson, “Thank you for listening.”
From “The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening” by Ari Shapiro. Copyright © 2021 by Ari Shapiro. Excerpted with permission by HarperCollins.
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