Friday, 11 November 2011

In which I judge people by their books and the covers

I am, and always have been, an avid reader. Books, magazines, the back of cereal boxes: put text in front of me and I’ll read it. And one of the (admittedly few) benefits to a longish commute is the chance to read. When I’m not falling asleep on the train both ways, I can plough through a hefty novel in a week. Other commuters (who must get enough sleep at night) and their reading habits are also part of the fun, because there are few better ways to judge people than by what they’ll choose to read in public.

Sadly, this fun has been vastly diminished of late as Kindles have proliferated (other e-readers are available). It’s now impossible to judge a person by their book’s cover, the Kindle’s grey plastic giving no clue as to the quality (or otherwise) of the literature (or otherwise) within, leaving people to read tripe in public free from the judgment of their peers.

(Although I did see a chap on the Victoria line this week taking this logic to its extremes, holding a small copy of the Bible inside his Kindle cover. Can I check, just for the record: it’s okay still to read paper books, right? They’re surely now not so passé that we’re disguising our hard copies inside an electronic disguise?!)

I’m terribly guilty of judging people by what they read, and fully expect the same treatment from others. I personally felt that the recent debate on WH Smith’s placement of “women’s fiction” rather missed the point: whilst deeply patronising, it’s quite useful to have the pink-covered monstrosities segregated from the proper reading – that way, I know exactly what to avoid. Because whilst I’m happy to have a stock of books I euphemistically declare ‘comfort reading’, and that I never take out in public, I sure as hell know that, even in bed on a dreich November night after a horrific day at work, I want nothing to do with any novel that has an illustration of a shopping bag on the front.

I’m more than happy to admit that I’ll choose which books I read, and when, based on the location in which I’m going to be reading them. Harry Potter is strictly for private consumption; recent commute-reads have been Somerset Maugham, and a selection of literary fiction in translation from the new indie bookshop near the office.

Of course, there is always someone willing to go one better.

“But everything you read is comfort fiction,” said TW the other day, as I attempted to mount a defence of the copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on my bedside table. I’d dispute that, saying that there’s absolutely nothing comfortable about Jean Teulé’s Eat Him if You Like, but it’s hard to argue with someone whose idea of reading for fun generally comprises weighty biographical tomes and in-depth studies of US counter-terrorism and foreign policy, and who’s currently working his way through Plato (I maintain first year Philosophy at university was enough to put me off for life and choose to believe that my literary fiction is quite respectable enough, thanks all the same).

And he’s not the only one.

Some while ago, I scrambled onto a train heading out of London to find myself surrounded by people reading only thelondonpaper or London Lite, the evening freesheets, heavy on the slebs and light on the news, and both of which are now defunct.

Feeling particularly smug that I had something a little more taxing on my person, I proudly pulled out a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and settled into my seat to read.

A few short moments later, I noticed the chap opposite look at me and then look at my book. There was a brief pause before he reached into his bag, rummaged a little, and withdrew a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He looked at me, and set it down on the table between us, not opening it, but going back to his paper instead.

The lesson from which is probably judge not, lest ye be judged – something my Bible-reading friend could have told me, and a diktat which people’s bloody e-readers seem to be enforcing on their own anyway.


misslizsarab said...

I read Plato at work...maybe this is why I always eat lunch alone

Redbookish said...

I am an Eng Lit trained professor, and I have to admit that I would never deliberately choose either Ulysses (Portrait of the Artist is fine) or anything by Thomas Hardy when reading for pleasure. I have taught them both, but that's as far as I'll go. Give me a Trollope any day. There's light reading for you.

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