Imagine this scene: You’re sitting on the subway, or on a park bench. Nearby, a stranger reads a book — a printed, bound book. You can read its title. Maybe you recognize, with a jolt, the colors, imagery and typeface on its cover. For readers of a certain age, a particular book cover can spark memories and quicken the heart. And, if you’re bold enough, the sight of someone you don’t know reading a book you know intimately well — “Jesus’ Son,” or “Americanah,” or “Something Under the Bed Is Drooling” — might just open the door to a conversation, a friendship, or more.
Or at least it once did. Countless book lovers, including many who once sneered at the idea of e-readers, now swear by their Kindles, Kobos, and Nooks. But one subtle, significant drawback of e-readers remains: In public places, no one can tell what others are reading.
Introduced 10 years ago, when Amazon sold out the initial run of its first-generation Kindle in under six hours, the e-reader has recast how millions of us “consume” books. But e-readers are also depriving us of a certain romance and sense of kinship in the world — or, perhaps, just the tantalizing prospect of both.
How often anyone really pauses by a park bench or crosses a cafe to greet a stranger, simply because he or she is reading this or that book, is largely unknowable. When I broached the notion with an expert — the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of the landmark “Anatomy of Love” and other best-selling titles — she said she’s unaware of any research into this area.
Then, in the next sentence, she recalled traveling by train through Uzbekistan a few summers ago when she noticed a mother and teenage son seated in the same car. The son was reading “A Game of Thrones.” Not a fan of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic herself, Fisher was nevertheless curious about what drew the young man to the book.
“I spoke to him,” she said, laughing, “not because I was interested in picking up an 18-year-old, but because I saw the book and was intrigued.
“And when I think about it,” she went on, “if I saw a stranger reading a particular poetry book, I might well stop and say, ‘Oh, I really like that poet.’”
I buy and read more books today than I ever did, largely because my preferred device — a battered, five-year-old Nook the size of a slender paperback — is, in effect, a portable library. Every great title ever written is available now, wherever we are, with an e-reader — the gift of an ingenious technology that, to borrow a phrase from Arthur C. Clarke, appears “indistinguishable from magic.”
The magic that’s missing? The peculiar thrill of seeing a book we love being read by someone we’ve never met.
And while the chance-discussion-of-Shakespeare scenario may just be a bookish introvert’s daydream — especially for those of us who are happily married, partnered, or just shy — it reflects a hope that, even years or decades after your last English class, literature can be a shared
For my part, the sight of an old paperback edition of Henry Miller’s “Colossus of Maroussi,” to cite just one example, can instantly bring me back to where I was living and what my life was like when I first encountered that mysterious, entrancing book — Miller’s best.
Books and book covers like that are not just evocative; they’re talismanic.
The anonymous hide of a Kindle Voyage or Kobo Aura? Not so much.
Anonymity has its uses. Plenty of readers don’t want to hear strangers’ comments about their book choices. It should go without saying that lurking, staring, and other unsavory behaviors won’t endear you to anyone, whether you end up introducing yourself or not. Don’t be that creep.
In the end, Fisher reminded me that there are myriad ways people can interact today, online and off. “The human drive for connection,” she says, “isn’t going to disappear because people are reading books on digital devices.”
Let’s hope she’s right. Maybe the sensibility behind asking a stranger, “Excuse me, is that the new Kindle?” is, at heart, no different than that behind asking, “Is this the first time you’re reading ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’?”
But somehow, deep down, I doubt it.
Benedict Cosgrove is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.