Have you ever caught someone looking at your book cover on the subway? I know I do it all the time. I’d like to say that I’m just curious, but the truth is that I sort of judge the person by what their reading. The first thing I check when I add someone on Facebook is what books they have listed on their info page. And I’m not saying that I’m super snooty and will only like you if you have a somewhat obscure but still recognizable literary author on there. I mean hey, I list Harry Potter next to Shakespeare. But I feel like your personality comes through in the book choices you make. So if I see someone standing awkwardly on the subway reading The Hunger Games in one hand while clutching the overhead bar for dear life with the other, I think, “You like reading popular books, and you like it enough to risk crashing onto the old lady in the seat in front of you by precariously lifting your hand off the bar to turn the page.” That—to my mind—is dedication.
So when I caught someone glancing at the cover of my latest read, I wondered what sort of impression they would get from my book choices. I’m currently wading through the pages of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night, a traveler. (Yes, the title is an incomplete sentence—my thoughts will follow in a future post.) Chances are this young girl has never heard of Italo Calvino. This book is moderately popular in literary circles, but otherwise I don’t think it’s very well known. Maybe she was trying to add a book to her own reading list (I’ve been known to use this tactic). Perhaps she was equally intrigued by the title, wondering what the rest of the sentence would be.
Or maybe she just needed something to look at. It’s hard to find a neutral spot to fix on when you’re on the train. You can stare at your reflection in the window, continuously float your eyes around the train, or fixate on something. I prefer the last option, and I fixate on my book. But without a book, I often find myself feeling restless and eerily voyeuristic on the subway. There’s something weird about looking at people in confined spaces—you sort of have to look at the people around you, but they know they’re probably being eyeballed by the other people in the train. It’s like the train becomes a performance space for people to project their supposed personas.
Isn’t that what I’m doing by reading my book? Am I projecting a personality that I want others to pick up on? Aren’t I also feeding off of other people’s performances as I secretly judge them for their book choices?