Last night on the subway, a guy I politely pretended to ignore was very blatantly reading over my shoulder. I was reading on my nook and at first thought he was maybe just interested in seeing what it looked like. (Which is what I do to iPad and Kindle people.) Then he kept reading, and I figured he, too, must be enjoying Impossible by Nancy Werlin. So, I let him keep reading without doing my usual passive-aggressive “shift and sigh” routine.
Another thought came to me. If this guy is anything like me, it’s possible that he was simply searching for what I was reading, which can be hard to spot if you’re unfamiliar with e-readers. The way music snobs turn up their noses at beats radiating from others’ iPods, I scan subway cars, parks, and cafes for titles, and then (admittedly) I form an opinion on the reader of that title. The opinion is neither negative or positive; it just simply is. I assume people do the same thing to me. In fact, sometimes I secretly hope they do, depending on what I’m reading that day.
Once on the subway (this is where I do most of my reading), I pulled out Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. I was only in the second chapter, a dent had hardly been made. Across from me, a man was just finishing the same book. When he closed it, looking satisfied, he caught my eye (well, first he caught my book’s eye), and we shared a knowing smile. It wasn’t a big moment, but it was a moment. Made possible by a book.
Another time, maybe a year ago, I sat across from two people reading the same book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that it’s a book that heavily uses other references – some fictional, some not. When the two across from me – a college-aged girl and a middle-aged man – realized they were reading the same book, they began discussing how they felt about the sometimes frustrating use of references. While I never, ever speak to people on the subway, I felt compelled to join in and say I had read the book a month prior, and then the three of us enjoyed a brief conversation on the merits of false footnotes.
Yet another moment made possible by books.
The thing with e-readers though, and I know this has been said before, is that you can no longer openly see what a person is reading. Thus, no judgments can be made, and no friendships can be formed. While I have on my nook books that I am not at all ashamed of – Impossible being one of them, and also The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Infinite Jest – I suspect that many book snobs use their e-readers for hiding the guilty pleasures. With the exception of the titles I mentioned above, and a few others, my nook is basically a tool for manuscripts and novels that I don’t necessarily want to form a connection over. (I won’t name any by name, but let’s just say the words “sea monsters” and “vampires” may or may not appear in the titles.)
Now, I notice, that if what I’m reading strikes up a conversation at all, it’s usually to ask me about the device itself. No one cares what I’m actually reading on that device. Call me old-fashioned, but I just can’t see myself making the same type of connection over a piece of technology than I could over a tangible book. That’s not to say I don’t love my nook, but… I guess what I’m saying is, let more people read over your shoulders. If you’re going to allow yourself to get lost in an e-book, it might be comforting to know that a real live person still could be willing to go with you.