One of the greatest luxuries in my life right now is having time to read. This most often takes place on my couch, lying on top of a torso-sized heating pad to forcibly relax the tension in my perpetually jacked-up neck and back. Sometimes I get to leave the house and read in coffeeshops, which always seems like a glorious prospect but is invariably louder and colder and less productive than I dream it will be. I read the same passage three times in a row because I’m distracted by the ponces at the next table over and their conversation about whatever the fuck they’re blathering about.
Expecting the outside world to be as comfortable as a personalized, heated couch cocoon may be somewhat unrealistic. There is one interesting benefit to reading out in the wild, though due to my Ron Swanson-esque desire to be left alone, I don’t always consider it a benefit–but when you read in public people want to talk to you about what you’re reading. I think this is probably a social phenomenon that some people purposefully contrive, like “Oh, my coffee costs four dollars for some reason? While I fetch my debit card from my male purse, let me conspicuously set my volume of Infinite Jest down on the counter so that you will see it and be impressed that I’m reading it.”
I tend to go the other way, if anything making an effort to conceal my book the way I conceal my tattoos when I’m not in the mood to be acknowledged. But people will comment on shit when they want to comment on shit. They will comment on your socks; that’s just the way it is. And they will comment on your books.
I’ve been reading Remembrance of Things Past by Proust, which is a three-volume, 3200+ page commitment. Every time I take a volume of this thing out in public, someone excitedly remarks, “I just bought that exact edition! It’s my summer project!” I was involved in just such an exchange last weekend only to have it interrupted by a third party who asked if I was a philosophy student (proposed responses included “No, I’m way too old for that”, “No, I’m just a reader of books”, and “No,” which is what I ultimately went with).
Sometimes it’s good: When I was 17, my now-buddy Rob noticed me reading a tome of Lou Reed lyrics in a long-dead cafe in Harvard Square, and subsequently showed me his collection of All Of The Vinyl Ever and introduced me to Tom Waits. Major score! When I was reading Blood Meridian in the winter of 2012, a young guy approached me in Inman Square and asked, “What’s The Kid up to now?” and bade me a pleasant farewell, expressing genuine joy on my behalf because I still had half the book left to read.
Sometimes it’s annoying: Once I was reading a Buddhist text and some professor of something or other told me I should read Nietzsche instead but warned that I “might not be ready for it”. He proved to be incorrect on both counts. A pretentious acquaintance, seeing that I was reading Nausea, approached me in a bar and inexplicably quoth, “You’re reading Jean-Paul Sartre? How’s that working out for you?” It seems too evident to bother pointing out, but reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! in public is roughly equivalent to stripping yourself naked and donning a sandwich board that exclaims HEY NERDS, COME TALK TO ME.
There are a few books that I’ve simply decided not to take outdoors, like Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and The Nazi Doctors, because I’m just too shifty-eyed and I don’t want to make people uncomfortable.
But I digress. Has this happened to you?