Sitting alone in a café the other day, at intervals between reading, I took to my penchant for people-watching. In walks a guy, roughly my age, with a unique ‘clothes-that-don’t-match-the-seasonal-weather’ look and a lack of socks. He’s carrying a thick book, with a plain, brownish cover – just the kind of understated, academic brick that I’m likely to find myself exiting the library with. Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps? War and Peace, even? Or maybe a Keats poetry anthology? My mind makes tenuous leaps and assumptions, exploring the potential avenues opened by his appearance: what sort of book would ‘suit’ him?
I was reading him through what he was reading. In just the same way as society has assumptions, or even prejudices, about certain appearances, clothing styles, brands, and tastes in music, in public, reading is not a private pleasure, but a form of identity construction, whether intentional or not.
I am reminded of a moment in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr Darcy takes up a book after tea, and Miss Bingley follows suit. Miss Bingley’s interest, Austen remarks mockingly, is in engaging and impressing Darcy, not in her book, which “she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his.” By no means am I suggesting that public reading is always a vain, impression-making practice, but Austen is aware of the social implications of reading in the presence of others. Unintentionally, we can make statements about our identity and personality through what we read in public.
On a recent train journey, I was reading a graphic novel, something I am admittedly quite self-conscious about, because of the associations of trivial, childish comic trash that immediately spring to the minds of many people. My niggling sensation of being judged was confirmed by the passenger opposite me, who kindly decided to inform me of the fact that I was reading “a comic book”. (Well done, sir!) Certain books probably do draw attention to themselves; for example, something like War and Peace is likely to imply intellect, ambition and sheer determination, whereas a light-hearted mainstream holiday read isn’t likely to shout out at all. It’s the same with clothes: there’s always a choice between blending in or standing out and making a statement about oneself. But of course, sometimes it’s just a case of wearing, or reading, whatever you want.
So, I eventually discovered the book of my café friend. As he folded back the unmarked cover, the dust jacket gaped slightly to reveal the letters “HAR” in an all-too-familiar font, format, and colour. It was the third instalment of J. K. Rowling’s much-loved Harry Potter series. Not quite what I expected, to be honest, but it serves my point. Your character will be judged by the cover of your book. Disguising it simply acknowledges this fact.
This article has been published on Intuition and can be viewed online at http://www.intuition-online.co.uk/article.php?id=2508