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Who’s watching you read (and other readerly things)?

June 10, 2010

Recently I reviewed Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion. It was a less than stellar review, but the book did contain some fun observations about readers and reading. So, I thought I’d share a few with you. The first one is:

With books a clearly signed shortcut to the soul, you would have to be either very stupid or very careless to make your reading public.

How do you feel about people seeing what you read? Do you try to hide the book you are reading? Do you show it off with pride? Or, do you not care one way or another?

And then, to put it another way, do you assess others – particularly those you don’t know – by what you see them reading?

Regarding the first set of questions, I really don’t care a lot. I don’t try to hide what I’m reading but neither do I flaunt it, mostly because if I’m reading I’m too engrossed in what I’m doing to worry about the others around me. As for the last question? Well, I might, possibly, maybe assess people just a little by what they are reading. But, this isn’t a character assessment so much as a “could I engage in a conversation with this person” sort of assessment. If they are reading a book that interests me there’s a chance I’ll make a comment – so, if you don’t want a strange 50-something woman starting up a conversation with you, you’d better make sure you are not reading Jane Austen (see below)!

The second one is to do with marginalia, which is something I’m guilty of doing:

She handles the books delicately, she turns pages, she reads paragraphs, she is gripped by old underlinings and margin scribblings, and wonders again how people can part with their books, particularly those that have hooked so deeply into their thoughts.

Must admit I wonder too … I am one of those people who finds it very hard to part with my books though, as I edge closer to old age, I can feel the ties that bind loosening, albeit ever so slowly – which is just as well as one day I will have to down-size. I may as well start preparing myself, emotionally, for it now.

Mansfield Park bookcovers

Not Pride and prejudice, but close!

And the final one I’ve chosen has to do with book lovers’ firsts:

Wine lovers remember their first taste of good wine, orchid growers their first glimpse of an orchid, musicians the first time they heard Bach. Book lovers, too, have their firsts: the first book they read by themselves; their first visit to a library; the first book they bought with their own money; and for many, the discovery of second-hand bookshops.

Hmm, booklover friends, do you remember all those firsts? I don’t think I do. I do have book memories, of course, but they are not firsts. One memory is how, as a child , I judged the success of Christmas by how many books I received. Another is how and when I fell in love with Jane Austen. It was Pride and prejudice of course, and I was 14 years old.

All this goes to show that even a book that left me wanting, still had something to make me think.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 5:31 am

    Reminds me of when I was in grad school. It was a relatively small university and the library had a checkout system where students got a return date stamped in the book but faculty just signed the line were the date usually was and could keep the book until it was requested by someone else. As a teaching assistant I (and most of my fellow grad students) qualified as faculty. BUT that made it awfully easy to track who read what. What books your prof was reading, had read.

    • June 10, 2010 10:01 am

      Oh, Susan, an early big brother in a way! Did it make you think about what you chose?

  2. June 10, 2010 10:08 am

    I really don’t care who sees what I read. I used to but why bother? There are those who would think me snobbish with some books, there are those who would think me lit-trash with others.

    I really can’t part with books I’ve marked up. I have a hard time parting with my books at all – they’re MINE! (lol) But I’m getting more and more books in Kindle and Audible versions so that’s less storage and you can’t really legally get rid of them – I guess. I have hundreds of digital books – but the best books, the classics- are paper format.

    I remember my first readers and my first library but not the first book I bought by myself and not any second hand bookstores. I remember being given a whole set of Agatha Christie books when I was about 18. I remember discovering the Berkeley used bookstores at age 20 – also some incredible indie bookstores. And I remember finding Amazon.com. Yes. Life is full of firsts. (he he)

    • June 10, 2010 9:28 pm

      Fair enough Bekah. I generally agree re people seeing what I read. And I clearly agree renot getting rig of my books. I’m intrigued though by e-books. How long can you hang onto them, and how well does your system organise them so you can find them easily when you want to?

  3. June 10, 2010 10:25 am

    So if you have to be very stupid or very careless to make your reading public, then what does that say of book bloggers??? Thankfully I think I’ve only ever blogged one book (The Road) mainly because I’m too slack, but I’ve got to say that I do enjoy reading book blogs, and if someone reads something I’m not interested in, or don’t have a great opinion of then I just move on, it doesn’t change my opinion of them. I suppose if their reading was all like that then I wouldn’t chose to read that blog any more as we wouldn’t have all that much in common.

    My failing memory doesn’t allow me to remember first. I remember some stuff I did in childhood, buying from the school book clubs, and racing to the local book shop with my pocket money each week to buy the next Famous Five or Nancy Drew.

    • June 10, 2010 9:32 pm

      Good point re book bloggers Louise – though I suppose there’s something different about the anonymity of the web vs that of being physically “seen”? There’s a whole different dynamic going on isn’t there, even if fundamentally our ideas/thoughts are the same? BTW Where are you now?

  4. June 10, 2010 11:29 am

    There are always plain brown wrappers.

    I often put my book away when people come near so I don’t have to start explaining. It’s not that I “care” it’s just that sometimes I don’t want to discuss it.

    • June 10, 2010 9:33 pm

      Just like Jane Austen hid her writing when people came into the room eh? BUT, I do like your brown paper cover example! That can hide a multitude of sins!

  5. June 10, 2010 2:26 pm

    Commuting to work every day as I do, a book is essential and I don’t care who knows it. I try to keep the fellow commuters who may be interested, amused by reading a variety of literature, mysteries, contemporary fiction, science fiction & fantasy as well as claasics. Most of my reading these days is repeat readings of old books from my personal library. I once reread Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust exclusively on the the way to and from work. It took me about four or five months to read the whole thing. I read other stuff in between as a reward for persisting with Proust which I occasionally found hard work.

    I remember early books, but not the first book I read by myself. I recall not being able to read, and longing for the knowledge. Once I got it there was no holding me back.

    I always try and see what other commuters are reading and am often pleasantly surprised by their choice of book – it being of an old or classic nature and not the latest bestseller.

    • June 10, 2010 9:37 pm

      I don’t commute much – public transport in my city is not a high point – but being able to read is certainly an incentive. Whenever I see people reading I go to great lengths to ty to work out what they’re reading without being too obvious about doing so. Not always easy! Good for you at committing such time to reareading Proust – though it seems like a good way to discipline oneself to read something significant like that.

  6. June 10, 2010 10:00 pm

    One good thing about a Kindle is that nobody can see what I’m reading. However, they do sometimes (less and less often now) ask about the device itself.

    You’re supposed to be able to keep your books indefinitely with either Kindle or Audible. The thing is that for Kindle you have to have a device which reads them – a computer will do if your Kindle gets lost or mangled. I can hold a limited amount on my device but Amazon keeps the rest for me along with my notes. I just go over there via the Kindle and do a search or I browse via my computer. Same with Audible books. I’ve been with Audible for many years and have no reason to think they’ll stop keeping my books – I also keep copies of those on my computer but I wouldn’t have to – it’s kind of a waste of space.

    Bekah

  7. June 10, 2010 11:47 pm

    I still recall the chilling sense of panic that overwhelmed me whenever I realised I hadn’t got anything to read on the tube/bus/train! A London commuter for two decades, with jobs often necessitating regular long journeys to other cities, I always tried to have a book with me. The alternatives? Either being forced to endure the crush without imaginative escape or, worse, work – horrors!
    But I didn’t really care who noticed what I was reading, while reserving the right at all times to have a good peer over any neighbouring reader’s shoulder (which is an Ancient British Right, and I am an Ancient Briton ;-).
    Keeping/parting from books? Too painful a subject; so will shut up.

  8. June 11, 2010 12:23 am

    I don’t care if people see me read or what I am reading when they see me. Heck, I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry on my daily public transit commute and the first few times I couldn’t figure out why so many people were looking at me! I admit to being a book snob and will judge other cimmuters by their reading material. I don’t think badly of them just better of myself for my higher quality reading choices ๐Ÿ™‚

    I do not part with books I have written in. There is something so much more personal about those books than ones I have not written in.

    As for remembering firsts, I don’t really. I can’t remember not being able to read, it seems I have always gone to the library (though I remember getting my first library card), always bought books when I had my own money (and like you judged the success of Christmas by the number of books I got!), nor do I remember the first secondhand bookshop I ever went to. I do remember when I first read authors I love – I was in 9th grade when I read P&P for the first time so that would put me around the age of 14 too ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. June 11, 2010 9:01 am

    Check out the covers of Hard Case Crime:
    http://www.hardcasecrime.com

  10. June 11, 2010 9:13 am

    Bekah: Ah, I wondered about “where” you would store all the books. Now I understand. Seems fair enough to me to trust Amazon. You’ve experienced major book loss before haven’t you, so you have a good sense of what it means and know that you can survive if you lose your books!

    Minnie: I know that panic too and have been known to buy something if for some silly reason I have found myself bookless and there’s been a source in sight to solve that problem. And, I do love your Ancient Briton’s right to snoop!

    Stefanie: LOL on all counts – and that’s all I’ll say!

    Guy: Thanks for link … will check it later when I am on better access than I am now (in Katherine NT)

  11. June 11, 2010 8:49 pm

    What an interesting post! I don’t really care who sees what I read out in public. I did, however, once made a conscious choice to pick one book over an other – I chose not to read Anais Nin on the train. ๐Ÿ™‚ Sometimes I’m wary of reading Beauvoir, Sartre, Dostoyevsky etc on the train because then I might feel a little pretentious but generally, I read whatever I want. When I’m not absorbed in my own book, my favourite past time on the train, particularly the peak hour ones is to see what people read. I picked up the Da Vinci code this way (I liked it) and I smile whenever I see every second person reading Harry Potter, Twilight or Stieg Larsson. There’s a nice affinity.

    I remember some bookish firsts – ‘reading’ Noisy Nora and following the words being sung aloud from a cassette tape; getting my first library card; buying my first book. This would make a great post and I might pinch this! ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. June 11, 2010 9:55 pm

    Glad you liked the post Mae. You know that if you feel nervous about people seeing what you read you can always cover the book in brown paper OR buy one of those gorgeous cloth bookcovers that support a developing country so you can help others while helping yourself! Oh, and you are most welcome to pinch the post idea. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery isn’t it?

  13. June 12, 2010 5:36 pm

    It is a great honour to a book if I keep it. I dispose of 90% of them within a month or so of reading them. The only ones I keep are those I may possibly re-read at some point in the future. The actual number of books I re-read can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

    Interesting post – you managed to find something worthwhile in even a book you didn’t think much of

  14. June 13, 2010 3:07 am

    I don’t try to hide what I’m reading when in public, and I totally make judgments about other people based on what I see them reading (Sorry, at least I’m conscious that they’re judgments? Err…) I guess I also assume that the assumptions other people will make about me based on my reading habits are probably correct.

    And I’m totally possessive about books! CAN NOT PART WITH THEM. Must keep…FOREVER.

  15. June 13, 2010 10:13 pm

    Tom: You are a strong person. I wish I were as strong because one day I know I am going to have to be.

    Emily Jane: Thanks for popping by. I don’t think you are the only reader who thinks and behaves as you do – join the club! I will visit your blog when I return from holidays and have proper internet access.

  16. June 14, 2010 8:30 pm

    If I cared who knew what I read, I wouldn’t have a blog.

    That said, I am vain about covers. I won’t read a book which has a cover taken from a recent film version while I’m on public transport. The reason I won’t is that I’m concerned that total strangers might think I’m reading the book of the film, rather than simply being someone who’s reading the book on its own merits.

    Why I should care what they think I can’t say, vanity seems the only possible answer.

    Oh, and I definitely look at what others are reading and judge them on it. I’m not just vain, I’m a snob too. Besides, I’m British. Looking down on others on the basis of essentially trivial matters is integral to our culture.

    Gosh, who says books are improving? In my case they seem to bring out the worst in me…

    Anyway, I never annotate, and I only get rid of books if I don’t like them. Who knows what I may wish to reread in future? My tastes change from time to time.

    Other than that, I’ve almost no early memories of reading. I don’t recall anything at all about the first book I read (does anyone?), the first book I bought or anything like that.

    • June 14, 2010 11:11 pm

      Oh Max, you made me laugh so many times with your response (at a particular moment in my life when laughging is hard).. I don’t quite know where to start, so, I’ll just make a couple of comments. Firstly, re books with movie covers, would you also avoid those ones marked as “Oprah Book Club”? This used to be a regular discussion on online bookclubs. I reckon, we should all buy those lovely fabric covers so that noone will know what any of us is reading.

      As for memories, I’m so glad so many people are like me. Clearly Goldsmith’s realism is not all that real among real readers!.

      • June 14, 2010 11:29 pm

        I would avoid books with Oprah Book Club on them (or Richard and Judy book club, the UK equivalent) even more than those with film covers WG.

        If everyone had fabric covers, I’d suspect them all of reading Harry Potter/Robert Langdon (the protagonist from The Da Vinci Code, I googled and will now wipe my cookies to avoid leaving any trace that I searched for such a thing) slashfic.

        Worse, I’d probably be right.

  17. June 15, 2010 11:27 pm

    Well, Max, you could, you know, suspect everyone of reading Ulysses or War and peace! What do you think? After all, what you don’t know can’t hurt you!

    Must admit though that I haven’t read or seen The Da Vinci Code (and in fact had no idea who Langdon was until you told me!) … and I gave up on Harry Potter early in the series. Was reading it to one of my children at the time but motherly love had its limits, particularly when she was capable of reading it herself. Both children did tell me that I gave up too soon and it got better. Perhaps that was so but I had other books to read by then…

    • June 15, 2010 11:34 pm

      I got told by friends ages back that the SF series Deep Space 9 is really good once you hit season five.

      I’ve no reason not to believe it, but their ideas of good may not be mine and more importantly there’s no way I’m investing time watching four not so good seasons to get to that good one and the ones that follow it.

      That’s kind of my thought on HP. I read the first, it was decent children’s fiction. I stopped there. It may be that the later books are great (though I doubt it), but I’m not going to read through the early ones to get to them. Life’s too short.

      Apparently Ulysses is one of the most started but not finished books out there. The people reading newspapers are probably all nominally reading Ulysses, they’ve just taken a break for the moment…

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