Private Reading, Public Places

The e-reader has transformed genre reading in two ways. It’s on its way to eliminating the storage problems obsessive crime, romance or Western readers have had, the crateloads of novels to be shelved awaiting reading and then to be disposed of once read; that’s one advantage. But the other one is the privacy of the e-reader, the fact that no one can tell what you’re reading without actually entering your personal space and peering over your shoulder. The e-reader has allowed, for example, romance readers to publicly read their chosen genre without ever having to lift their heads and see someone’s lip curling at the sight of the hunk and the honey on the cover.

It frees up other kinds of public reading, too. There’s a lot of talk about adolescent boys and reading, what boys will allow themselves to be seen to be reading, whether they’ll read material with a girl protagonist. To the extent that they refrain, for fear of being ridiculed, from reading books with girls on the cover, they need no longer restrict themselves; Matthew Reilly and Jenny Downham present the same neutral screen to the world.

That slight trend to publish two versions of a book, one as YA and one as adult, with different covers supposedly appealing to different demographics, makes less sense in the e-reader world. Adults may read as much children’s or teen fiction as they like on their commute. Nobody need know that they’re comfort-reading the Moomin or the Narnia books again, or haring through a teen adventure, rather than preparing for the Monday onslaught with a quick flick through the Seven Habits of Coldly Ambitious People.

If you’re the sort of person who can read erotica in public, you may do so without advertising the fact, or covering your book with brown paper, or grafting it to your lap so that no one sees the cover. (I don’t know; I started e-reading Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye on the train and still felt weird.) If you don’t want to attract an anti-intellectual backlash, you can read your post-everything theorist entirely privately; the e-reader saves you the physical labour, too, of carting around all those weighty words. If your absolute favourite author’s new book has been lumbered with the most embarrassing cover in the world in an attempt to scoop a new demographic into his readership, don’t stress waiting for the new edition where the marketing department come to their senses; buy the e-book and present the same black or grey packaging to the world every time.

Reading is a private activity that we sometimes conduct in public; the e-reader adds another layer of privacy. Readers of e-books are publicising e-readers as a delivery system rather than individual works, or the nature of their own preferences. For people who don’t want their choices sneered at, judged, or even seen, the e-book is the iPod for the eyes; your taste, or your taste-testing, can remain concealed, even as the fact of your reading remains in full view.

What kind of book would you read in public by e-means, for privacy purposes? Would you do so because of the nature of the book itself, or the nature of the crowd you’re reading in?

Margo Lanagan is simply one of the finest and most powerful writers I have ever read.

I have liked everything she has written, but when I read Black Juice, the stories in it moved me and shattered me to the depths of my soul. They took me somewhere no writing had ever taken me. I knew Margo before that book, and the other incredible things she went on to write. I knew Margo when she was setting off to do a short short course at Clarion West in Seattle. It is like knowing someone who said they were going to grow up and become an astronaut, and then they did.

Since then (and even before we met) she has been winning awards. Including four- yes FOUR world fantasy awards. She also did a History degree as well as wandering through poetry, junior and YA fiction, teen romance and dark fantasy. She is active on Twitter and absolutely au fait with the modern world. In fact, I suspect she has a cape somewhere, which she dons for the odd flight over Sydney, where she lives.

14 Responses

    1. Maureen says:

      I have to admit I did a little air punch when I saw you were the guest poster for today, Margo! For some weird reason, I’d only ever read Tender Morsels by you till this year and so when I finished my semester I went on a wild book buying spree and bought both Sea Hearts and Red Spikes amongst other books. I then got out Black Juice and White Time from the library so I didn’t have to wait on postage time for those books to arrive (yes- I will choose physical books every time and regret nothing. I really don’t care if people know what I read and judge me for it. The same goes for what I write. I judge those people right on back.) I have enjoyed everything by you so far and I agree with Isobelle that you are a very powerful writer.

      I am about to start reading Sea Hearts (I have to wait for my Mum to give me my copy back) and I am sure it’s going to be excellent. Random aside- I hate that trend of changing titles and cover art for demographics. Are readers really that culturally naive? Is age really a level of maturity set in stone? Northern Lights is a much better title compared to The Golden Compass in my opinion, and I like both the cover art and title of the Australian Sea Hearts better than the UK/US one.

      Ironically, there was an article on Fifty Shades of Grey yesterday in the Telegraph about a) how it’s increased the sale of sex toys and products over the last year and b) how it’s allowed women to talk about their sex fantasies publically without as much denigration because the book is mainstream, popular and still pornographic. Straw man feminism bashing and heterosexual assumptions about everyone and sex aside, it was a pretty good article and it reminds me of what you’re getting at here with the ebook/ereader public/private sphere angle.

      Our society does judge people for certain things. There are cultural norms that people are expected to adhere to around gender norms, sexuality norms, and race norms. Physical books with their cover arts does allow people to make assumptions (let’s not even go into the way cover art and genre can create their own norms eg certain fantasy styles and impossible female positions- author Jim Hines tried to copy them all at his blog once with hilarious results). Public conversations around what the book is about allow people to make assumptions. An ereader makes it much harder to have these assumptions because the book is hidden from view. Those who read and enjoy books like Fifty Shades can enjoy it as much as they like without losing social “face.”

      I guess that is a good thing, but at the same time, getting judged, being forced to engage in a book dialouge- doesn’t that force society to have these uncomfortable discussions about the way our society works? If we are all keeping what we are reading quiet, doesn’t that allow these societal values to remain hidden beneath the surface, still untalked about? Is that really a good thing?

      I honestly don’t know.

    2. Karin Gilbert says:

      Private reading, public places…
      Reading is such an intensely personal experience while you are reading. Yes an eBook does allow you a greater degree of anonymity more than a print copy might provide. But if I am reading in a crowd it is probably because I am making the most of the time I have there, or I am hooked on a great story. I am probably not too concerned about what people observe me reading, (unless of course they want to talk to me about the book!) My experience is private until I choose to share it. However for me the value of an eBook lies in the ability to dip into whatever story or information I feel like reading at that time. Yes the very best story can be all encompassing and so hard to let go of that you are compulsively searching for that next opportunity to read, but sometimes I want to dip and taste a wide variety of books. Sometimes the thought I have from one book needs to be extended with some ideas from another book. Sometimes I need to be immersed in a book and at other times I am immersed in the connections of several different books. An eBook device gives me the opportunity to carry that potential around with me. The truth is I just want to have access to as many books as i can get! And if it is an eBook or a print copy its worth lies in the journey it takes me on.
      thanks for the interesting discussion!
      Karin

    3. Emily Craven says:

      When you think about it, a visual representation of your activity does not really reduce the opportunities to discuss the work or your ability to share what you like with others. Look at music, there is a huge culture around the discussion of music, bands and concerts and most of us listen to our music on an iPod or MP3 player. We don’t carry CD covers around so people know what we are listening to. We do our listening with earphones, in private, and we chose to publicly share with others. An e-reader will not change our natural urges to share what we are passionate about.

      • Min Dean says:

        “We don’t carry CD covers around so people know what we are listening to.”

        Love it! 😀 
        Totally agree with all you’ve said Emily, but particularly that part. 

        I love the privacy points you made in your post Margo. It sung to me – I don’t want to be looked at or judged by what people see me reading. It makes me paranoid just thinking that someone’s staring at me on the train to begin with 😛
        In saying that, I was then trying to think of what book/s I’d chose to e-read purely so nobody could see it, and I couldn’t think of any. I only started to e-read because it became convenient  – the majority of books I started reading on my iPhone were classics – Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen’s works, HG Wells, Dracula, Mary Shelley…things that the public would have seen and labeled me as ‘literary’, maybe? Lol. It didn’t bother me at the time… the main benefit I found was, in their e-form, I didn’t have to carry around weighty tomes, worrying about whether they’d get damaged, or destroyed on the commute. Or left at work (*gasp*) when I dashed out. 

        But it’s still a good point – people are free to read their Twilights and Fifty Shades, without fear of being publicly mocked (which I wouldn’t do, you’re free to read what you want IMO – but I’ve seen it done on the train by drunken patrons), if they want to. 

      • Emily Craven says:

        I will admit that I do love to read Meg Cabot books, which is light fluffy reading but somehow I love them. However the covers of her books are so… pink, that sometimes, I feel a little twinge of embarrassment. But then I quickly lose myself in the story and it doesn’t matter!

    4. Private reading seems to me like something you would do in a totalitarian state where you fear the informers or you are reading “Home Made Explosives” – how to make a timed detonator to ignite an explosive made of diesel fuel and fertilizer.

      Or perhaps it is like the ubiquitous iPod a device that publically declares you are in isolation and do not want to communicate with anyone. Who cares what other people think of your reading material unless you are in a situation where the title is likely to stir up trouble. If you were on a train reading “Wombats Need to be Culled” and everyone else is wearing T-shirts with “I love wombats” printed on it.

      • Min Dean says:

        Or perhaps it is like the ubiquitous iPod a device that publically declares you are in isolation and do not want to communicate with anyone.

        That’s a bit it for me, hey. Train time is my time and I’d do it in isolation if I could; do not disturb 😛

        I can see why people would care to be seen reading something / anything in particular. People have emotions – you have to have a particularly strong constitution to genuinely not be effected by what other people say or think about you. We’re constantly judged by everything we do – how we dress, how frizzy our hair is – how old our shoes are – what we read. It doesn’t matter, deep down, that they judge you, for sure. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt, or effect your confidence in that moment, or stop you from enjoying something a little more, or make you feel guilty for enjoying something. Even minutely; everything people say to us, how people react to us, has it’s effect.
        Being able to remove the ‘what is she reading’ factor from the list of things people are judging me on is a good thing, IMO.

      • Maureen says:

        I completely agree with you, Peter! Talking and listening, discussing and debating, engaging- that is what reading taps into. The need to be private about what you are reading makes little sense to me personally- who cares if people judge you. Call them out on it if you like. Society could probably do with the reminder. Making reading more private won’t stop the judging, it hides it beneath the surface and potentially makes something even harder to talk about and the brand of judging even more endemic.

      • Min Dean says:

        Then I commend you for being stronger than I when it comes to others judgement. I do care what others think, on a certain level. The level that twinges at the back of my mind asking, what did I do wrong, or how dare they when they don’t even know me. Any reaction at all is a response to judgement, even calling someone out. I’d rather avoid it as much as possible.
        But, that’s just me; it doesn’t mean any one else has to be that way and it’s certainly not the only reason I use ebooks when it’s convenient for me to use them!

    5. Virginia Lowe says:

      Ah yes, reading on the train. Many people judged me when young, for reading on the train. It wasn’t so much WHAT I was reading to my mother. It was THAT I was reading, as in (cringe cringe – she was a lovely person, but did have rather a one-track mind) “How will you ever meet a man if you have your head in a book all the time?” But the other person was my (younger) brother Robert, who maintained he had sat beside me in embarrassment as I wept over Beatrix Potter. Now this is certainly an exaggerated story. There’s no section in Potter’s oeuvre that would make even a child weep, let alone an adult. But I do believe that he had sat on the train beside me as I wept over a children’s book – probably something like “The Secret Garden”. And I don’t see how the e-reader would help here. In fact weeping into an e-reader probably does considerably more damage than the spotty spongy pages that result when you weep into a book. At least people wouldn’t know I was reading a KIDS’ book.It wouldn’t have helped my mum though – I’d still be READING! But of course that’s okay too – choose a lovely librarian and all such worries are over (as they have been for 43 years!).

    6. Deb says:

      Personally I don’t give a hoot about what other people might think of my reading habits. I’ve read all kinds of books on trains, buses and aeroplanes, romance novels, kiddy books, fantasy and uni texts. If people are interested in what I’m reading instead of their own interests, that’s fine. Not my problem. If they want to ask questions or talk, that’s cool. If they want to bag my choices, well, they are entitled to their opinion.

      I don’t think there are any books that I would want to hide from view. I don’t think I judge people on what they are reading, actually I’m usually not all that interested because I have my nose in my own book.

      I do admit to using an iPod an public transport (if I’m not reading) but to me this is being considerate of others. I doubt that everyone on a packed train wants to be listening to country music for the hour it takes to get home from town, and I’m happy that others use iPods as well, so that I don’t have to listen to their choices. Mind you if you come to my house, expect to listen to country, that’s all I play; and loudly too.

      The one positive I can see in the e-reader is the space issue. Real books need real space, e-books certainly take up way less. But then again, all I need is another bookshelf or two and I’m set.

    7. Judith Ridge says:

      But Margot, this denies me the great pleasure of sneaking peeks at people’s books to see what they’re reading! It’s the only thing that makes public transport bearable! OK, I exaggerate, but it’s true that I love trying to figure out what people are reading (Justine Larbalestier wrote about this recently, too) and I sometimes strike up a conversation as a result. But I do take your point that it frees people up to read their trashy/pointyheaded/otherwise embarrassing favourites and not be the object of mockery.

      And just on reading on public transport–Sydneysiders don’t seem to do an awful lot of it. The New York subway is full of readers, as this glorious blog from the New York Public Library attests:

      http://undergroundnewyorkpubliclibrary.com/

      Maybe we need a Read on the Train campaign for Cityrail.

    8. Lizabelle says:

      You make such good points here! I remember my late teens, when as well as reading adult literature I was still addicted to various children’s series (this was the era when YA was basically limited to Sweet Valley High books, which weren’t my cup of tea), sneaking around the shelves in WH Smith and desperately hoping none of my friends would see me.

      I’m pretty comfortable with my reading habits these days (if people judge, I dont want to know them), but an ereader would have been a godsend for a few years there. I’m well in favour of ereaders if it’s going to encourage teenagers to read more.

      That said, I’m also a huge book nerd, and I love seeing what other people are reading, whcih obviously you can’t do with an ereader, unless you’re REALLY nosy. 🙂

    9. Leah says:

      I often try to see what people are reading when I see books on the train (I can’t help my curiosity!), so it is disappointing to think that this will almost certainly become less and less common.

      I feel very little shame over what I choose to read, in public or otherwise. My mother worried at one stage that I was reading Good Wives (the sequel to Little Women) on the train, but she was relieved to discover I was instead rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I wasn’t worried either way – sure, Good Wives has some dated ideas and the cover was pretty daggy, but Jo is a wonderful character, and Professor Bhaer is a lovely addition. Harry Potter was of course a sensation by then and EVERYONE was reading it (as each new book came out, my whole family would share a single copy, trading it back and forth amongst ourselves). (Which is of course another fun feature of physical books!) I also recently bought a copy of Chris Colfer’s first book, The Land of Stories, a new release hardcover with a surprisingly dated cover (think Enid Blyton), and I would happily read that in public.

      (Admittedly, there have been a couple of times on trains when I’ve misjudged the book I was reading and had to try to stop myself crying (Robin Hobb!), but otherwise I have never regretted a book choice.)

      The only reason I may be wary of reading something in public would be for fear of others judging me, or interrupting in a negative way. (That said, positive questions or comments are generally welcomed.) One such is an amazing book titled Dear John, I Love Jane. It’s a selection of essays, all written by women who saw themselves as heterosexual, but then later in life (ranging from 20s through to 60s) found themselves falling for another woman. The essays cover a range of experiences with beautiful and often painful insight. It is one book that I would read on a ebook, simply to avoid unwanted inquisitions or assumptions. (That said, I am not ashamed to share my love for this book, and would far rather read it than something that promotes unhealthy relationships, like 50 Shades of Gray – or 50 Shades of Domestic Violence, as I’ve also heard it called. It’s not the sex – I think it’s good that it’s letting people feel more free to talk about it – what bothers me is the possibility that people might think that it portrays a good, healthy relationship.)