I’ve been mulling all week on James Wolcott’s piece in Vanity Fair about the loss of “visible markers of superior taste and intelligence” as we digitize what we consume – the white headphones don’t disclose what I’m listening to, the Kindle hides what you’re reading – and lose a way to connect. There’s a bit of a disconnect between his quote and my summary, but it’s a rambling article and I’m going to ramble about it.
I’m sure someone has written about book covers in an academic way, but this week I’ve been thinking about the different purposes they might serve in the peculiar context of the subway (Wolcott’s article is even accompanied by a photograph of a subway rider ostentatiously reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover). Wolcott talks about coffee table books and stocking your shelves with the “right” books to project a certain image of one’s self – is anyone doing this on the subway? From my six months or so of watching, I think generally not. Sure, the Camus-reading young man with wild hair and suspenders is projecting a very carefully constructed persona, and the book is part of that persona, but most people, as I’ve noted, tend to get uncomfortable when they realize I’m trying to see what they’re reading. We count on the anonymity of the city to read whatever we want – like the woman reading a relationship self-help book next to me – but we tuck those books away from coworkers and friends.
I do think, sometimes, about the personality I impute to a person based on what he is reading because I assume he is interested in the book and likes it. But he could be reading it for class or finishing a book he finds boring (it’s taken me years to be able not to finish) or reading it because someone else on the subway was reading it. When I’m between book club books, the cycling book in my hands is a great marker for my interests, but when I’m slogging through The House of Mirth, someone approaching me on that basis is going to be disappointed.
But we never approach each other, which is a flaw in Wolcott’s elegy for the book. At least in the subway context, I have never seen more than a passing comment on what a stranger is reading. It’s taboo to approach other riders except for help figuring out the weekend service changes. Maybe the signaling function works at Starbucks, but in the shared privacy of the subway, we seem to choose our books for ourselves and not for what they say about us.