The man never saw me before, as far and I know and I didn’t recognize him. In fact, now his face is a mystery to me. Because I didn’t look at it. My eyes were focused on the table in front of him where a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Cat’s Table lay with a bookmark about a third of the way in. I left my friends, my non-fat Capp and even my purse behind to step across the aisle and ask, “How is it? Do you like it? Is it funny?”
He turned toward me and said, “I'm not very far through the first riveting 75 pages; it’s slow and thoughtful. It’s a memoir.”
“Yes, a latter one,” I answered. “Did you read the first one, Running in the Family, I loved that one and I thought it had some funny moments.”
“No, I’ve only read The English Patient.”
“Well, enjoy,” I retreated back to my friends.
“I hope it gets funny,” he returned.
Perhaps it’s a habit from riding the NYC subway for so many years, but I have a tendency to stare down books. Whenever I see someone reading or even carrying a book, I will contort my body to get a whiff of the title. Sometimes, the words will be fragmented by a hand covering part of the title, and like figuring a puzzle, I mentally scan the list of current reads and try and figure it out. One year rows of The DaVinci Code lined the subway cars and waiting rooms at airports. The cover became instantly recognizable, then the weight and size of it made it completely predictable. A particular crook of the elbow, a thickness of volume, oh yeah, davinci. “Do you believe everyone is reading that?” I said later to my friends. “I see it everywhere. Because I look.
From my aisle seat on an airplane, my view is clear of the seat one up and across. Someone’s book is open. Paragraphs, dialogue, chapter headings--This is a wonderful mystery. I strain to see the text, get some sense of the style, the main character. I can spend several minutes of a ride working out in what book “Meyer Landsman” is the star detective. Although I haven’t read it, I guess, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Seems to have that Chabon thickness about it, and the reader is rapt and smiling.
Waiting for the restroom is another opportunity to survey the reading choices for the five-hour flight. I walk slowly down the aisle and glance right and left as if I'm the flight attendant ready to fill a glass. Magazine, Dvd player, comic book, romance novel, People Magazine, passenger sleeping with David Foster Wallace closed on the table, and a book unbelievably covered in paper. Yes, covered.
When I'm stuck in line, the temptation to read along with the person right under me is magnetic, thinking I can drop into the story like it’s a movie on the Lifetime channel—you know who the good girls and the bad girls are just from the hair dos and the dialogue.
The most satisfying moment is seeing someone young with a book I read about their age. Cat’s Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Siddhartha, anything by Joyce. I repress the desire to trill, “don’t you love it? Isn’t it changing your life?” The worry sets in: is it an assigned book they hate? Would an older person’s recommendation work in reverse? I'm not hearing anyone hating a book.
What’s missing from my book gazing addiction is the connection to the person reading the book. I don’t usually make contact or even take a moment to check them out, see who they are and if the book is a fit. Books feel public, like art in open spaces. Anyone can look. Occasionally I catch the owner frowning at me and shifting, and I do have enough sense to turn away.
The connection between book and owner only comes together when I'm visiting someone. I'm drawn immediately to the shelves, much like those who have to check out the kitchen. Without touching a single volume, I examine each row, the contents, the organization, the breadth and depth. Familiar titles please me, unfamiliar ones make me curious and yet, I keep a distance like it’s a display of precious antiques. Reading is a personal and quiet thing, so my relationship to the person deepens when I see their collections, what has been consumed and integrated.
Now I need to enter the electronic state as more Ipads, kindles, nooks and eBook readers are making their presences where books had been. The font is often bigger and clearer, easier to book eavesdrop. But the size and appearance are usually the same no matter what the book. No longer can I look at the binding, the design of the title, the blurbs on the back, the picture of the author, to have my moment of victory with a mystery book. My knowledge of characters, plots and literary style needs to go up a few notches before I can commit an author or a title to a glowing set of words on the laps of the people sitting next to me on BART.
And what about cover art? Will it be a thing of the past? Authors dream about their covers like Barbie dreams about wedding gowns. Book design is part of the book sleuthing business and I truly appreciate the definitive cover, the embossed font. Not for the sake of art, but for the ability to recognize the book from several feet away. The apple on Twilight; the flat white with red print of Beloved.
Clearly I need to develop new skills because it's a hard addiction to break. I want to know what someone is reading more than I want to know anything. (Unless they have a cool dog) So what will I do (not judging by the cover.)? In the electronic world user-preferences only leave the book with one thing: content. My attention will turn inward, as it always does, to what’s inside -- it inevitably resorts to that. Getting under the skin, where everything happens. I am ready to read here and there and not know anything at all.
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