Once upon a time, years ago, I sat in a railway waiting room in Nantes, France, reading a life of Henri de la Rochejaquelein as I waited for my train. I was so absorbed in my book, in fact, that it took me a while to notice someone crouched right before me, busy rummaging through one of those large duffel bags. And rummaging. And rummaging. And rummaging…
I did notice in the end, and stole a glance over the book’s rim – and there was this bespectacled boy about my age, pretending fascination with the contents of his bag, and desperately trying to get a peep at what sort of story held my attention so thoroughly.
So I gave him a smile, and tilted the book to show him the cover. Caught in the act, the boy jumped a mile, blushed furiously, grabbed his bag, and fled – but not before stealing a glance at the title, much to the amusement of two of three rows of fellow travelers.And yet, you know, the French boy had no need whatsoever to blush and flee: I am just the same. I cannot see a reader without itching to know. On a train, at the airport, at the vet’s… I just can’t help myself. I turn as nonchalantly as I can, I pretend to retie a boot, I risk dislocating my eyeballs, I blush to interesting hues when I get caught. I do it all the time.
Curiosity? Yes and no. It’s hard to resist the temptation to decipher someone based on what they read… And I know that one single book means little – and even less when traveling. One reads strange things, when traveling: gifts bought for someone else, or the one decent title found at the duty free, or the small volume that fits in the hand-luggage, or a fellow traveler’s loan… Or not. It’s hard to tell, it can mean very little. And yet, we all do it. Or at least, I do – and like to draw conclusions.
Which is why, when I catch someone peeking at my books, I understand it very well, and always tilt the book to show them the cover. Sometimes I do inobtrusively, sometime I exchange a grin with the peeker. After all, we belong to the same tribe, don’t we -just like that boy in France, once upon a time. Those Who Peek At Other People’s Books.
Davide Mana said:
When I was in high school i started reading in Englsh. I used to buy them in a small bookstore by the Turin station. The shop had a large supply of small, thin white plastic bags, in which my weekly purchases were placed. And going back home afterwards I noticed not only my fellow travelers were peeking at what I was reading… they also tried to read the book titles through the thin white plastic of my bag. The fact that those were books in a foreign language caused them to make a lot of strange faces.
So one day I happened to mention this fact to the owner of the shop – people making faces while trying to make out words in another language through a plastic bag.
He laughed, and asked me to give him back the bag with the books I had just bought. I was a little surprised but I handed him my bag.
He smiled, pulled the books out and slipped them in again.
“We put them in upside down,” he told me. “This way it’s funnier.”
la Clarina said:
😀 Oh, this is wicked! I protest most heartily on behalf of the Peekers!
Jack Shalom said:
Here in NYC, we used to have a culture of reading on the subway. Now it’s greatly diminished–everyone has their ears plugged with earphones. But every once in a while, I’ll be sitting with someone standing over me, their one hand on the overhead railing, the other balancing an open book. As they read, blotting out the world around them, I can leisurely observe the front and back covers of the book a few inches from my face.
At the least, I’ve gotten some good book recommendations. At the most, a conversation with a stranger. Those don’t come cheaply on a NYC subway.
la Clarina said:
In Italy we are (or at least we have a reputation for being) rather casual about striking up conversations with strangers. I don’t live up to the reputation, though, and only once started chatted up a reader: a young woman with an Italian translation of Conrad’s The Shadow Line. I had heard it had a prefaction from a writer whose choice surprised me very much, for several reasons – so the prefaction is what I asked about. It turned out the reader had a habit of always keeping prefaces and forewords last, and had nothing to tell me on the subject – but we began chatting about Conrad, and reading habits, and my Kindle, and it was a very pleasant leg in an otherwise awful journey.
Perhaps I should do it more often.