But, due to the complete impossibility that is travelling in London without being pressed up against several hot, sweaty bodies, there’s very little reading privacy to be had on the capital’s transport system. Which is a bit of a pain, as I do like my privacy when I’m reading.
Because if there’s something that’s guaranteed to make me disproportionately cross, it’s strangers reading over my shoulder. I hate it. With a passion. A blistering, fiery passion. A usually-reserved-only-for-Piers-Morgan-and-cretins-who-yell-at-me-in-the-street type hatred.
When I notice someone doing it, I’ll react, and not particularly pleasantly. In fact, I’ll generally (over)react in as passive-aggressive and childish a manner as I can muster – turning the page with as much silent ceremony as possible; closing the book narrower, so that only I can see the text inside; turning my body to shield the writing; or, in the worst cases, putting the book away entirely.
It’s something that’s always bugged me, and I’m not entirely sure why: in other capacities, I love sharing what I’m reading, whether that’s pressing a book into someone’s hands once I’m finished with it, or reading aloud passages that I particularly love. And after all, it’s not as if words are a zero-sum commodity and that, by reading over my shoulder, someone else is doing me out of the words, that they’re a finite resource, being used up by a parasite sucking out the semantic nourishment. It doesn’t cost me anything: they’re not somehow increasing the cost of the book by taking in the words whilst I am.
And yet, once I’ve noticed someone doing it, it gets under my skin and stays there. Because somehow, it seems enormously rude; an invasion; a violation of my personal space.
When I read, even if I’ve only got one tube stop and four minutes in which to do it, I like to be on my own: it gives me the chance to be whisked away into a whole other world, away from people’s music leaking from their tinny earphones, their sweaty, unironed shirts, their hot, slightly boozy breath against my cheek. It’s also basic manners: the writer has, by and large and especially when it comes to novels, poured their heart and soul into the work. I want to repay them by giving it my undivided attention, which I can’t when some sweaty idiot, too disorganised or too lazy to bring their own book with them, is encroaching on the words that are, for the time being, mine.
So the next time you’re reading over a woman’s shoulder on the tube, and she snaps the book shut with a barely audible snarl, you should know that I’m sorry. You’re just really, really, really annoying me.