I’m somebody who not only likes to read in public places but also to watch how other people read in public places, and over the past few months I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in reading in public that could leads to all kinds of, to quote Paul Simon, ‘accidents and incidents’.
Let’s deal with my personal reading in public first; my favourite thing is to read a book on a train. I feel that the rhythm of the train can mix with the rhythms of the prose or the poetry I’m taking in, and somehow the work can become greater than the sum of the parts.
The book readers seem more dangerous to me as they stroll down the street, a vast family saga flapping in the breeze.
Trains are also a good test of the work I’m reading, particularly if it’s the afternoon and I’m feeling a bit drowsy. If the book doesn’t hit the spot then I feel my eyelids begin to droop and before I know it the book has crashed to the floor and I’ve dozed past my stop.
My second favourite thing is to read a book in a café. Sometimes, I must admit, I read that book ostentatiously, I show off with the book and the espresso and the little cake so that I look like an intellectual on the left bank in Paris rather than a middle-aged bloke in a Costa in a small northern town. I imagine people looking at me and thinking ‘Isn’t he bohemian?’ although they’re probably thinking, “Does he know he’s got cake crumbs all down his jumper?”
Other people, though: they read in public all the time, books, magazines, Kindles, tablets, newspapers, texts, emails, screwed up notes they’ve found in their pockets. They’re reading on trains and buses, on park benches and in bookshops. They’re reading as they strap-hang on the tube and as they sit in a doctor’s waiting room.
Ah, that’s where a number of the al-fresco reading public are going to end up because one of the most disturbing public trend I’ve seen on my travels is people reading a book as they actually walk down the street. I know: scary, isn’t it?
I understand that, over the last few internet-powered years, we’ve become adept at avoiding people on the street as we text or email. At the last minute a kind of radar kicks in and they swerve away like a nippy winger at a football match.
The book readers seem more dangerous to me as they stroll down the street, a vast family saga flapping in the breeze. They are so deep in the book they are swimming at very bottom of the plot and the prose. They are oblivious to the world.
A lamp post looms, scarily. There is about to be a post/reader interface. If this was a cartoon the words BANG and OOF would be about to appear. I want to tell them to stop; I’m frightened for them. Their radar appears to be on the blink. I’ll have to stop writing and lunge forward to shift them out of the way…