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What are you reading?

One of the arguments against e-readers is that you can’ t see wha t other people are reading anymore. It used to be that you’d spot an interesting-looking person on the train, or at a cafe, or wherever, and take a minute to check out the cover of their book of choice. Now, all you see are people with ever-thinner slabs of plastic, their faces illuminated by LCD screens like the bluish-white water of a hotel swimming pool at night. A light of loneliness.

We are losing something, and we will never get it back: impromptu conversations with strangers. Last May, on a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to New York, I saw that the elderly gentleman beside me was reading Nemesis, Philip Roth’s latest novel about the polio epidemic of the mid-1940s. I could see he was nearing the end, so I asked him to share his thoughts with me once he’d finished. I was as eager to know his thoughts about the book as I was to hear about his own experience living through the period it portrays.

An hour or so later, he tapped my arm, and thus began a four-hour conversation about the novel, which we agreed was both great and deeply flawed, life in New York, his work as a composer of music for Broadway plays, and many, many other topics. We kept each other company and turned what might have been just another long, uncomfortable flight into a civilized afternoon 30,000 feet aloft.

Another time some months b ack, aboard a horribly crowded subway car, pressed between a metal pole and a gaggle of pre-teens, a man in his mid-50s commented that we were reading books by the same author. Once again, an experience worthy of Dante’s Inferno was momentarily suspended with talk of literature.

What does it say that in both of these cases, my serendipitous new friend was a man born well before the personal computer became a household appliance, each more likely to own a record player than an iPod?

Will I ever have an excuse to talk to anyone my own age?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Scot Siegel September 26, 2011, 9:10 am

    Well said. I believe there will always be a desire to take that private moment from the book (paperback, e-book or otherwise) and share it. We can always ask: So what are you reading? Sure, asking (potentially invading someone’s privacy) requires tact, intuition, some face-reading abilities, and luck; and the answer might not be all that interesting: Email; or I’m not reading, I’m playing poker; or A vampire novel. Though it could be: A literary journal–it’s called Contrary. Heard of it? Serendipity is waiting. She needs an enabler.

  • Pete September 26, 2011, 9:39 am

    I also miss seeing what others are reading. The only time I’ve ever snooped someone’s e-reading was on the train when I sat right behind a fifty-something guy with a Kindle. His book? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That didn’t prompt a conversation, but it did give me a chuckle.

  • Jeff McMahon September 26, 2011, 2:35 pm

    When Steve Jobs reads this post, I’m certain he’ll give Tim Cook a jingle and have the engineers put a display on the backside of the reader for the title and some cover art. Or a projector that puts it on the reader’s forehead. Problem solved.

  • Paula Marie Deubel September 27, 2011, 3:05 pm

    What about those fine moments at Borders Book Store – real books with actual pages to touch and the smell of coffee and chocolate from the cafe, classical or alternative music in the background (live music on weekends) and all the interesting poets, writers, musicians we used to mee there … gone? … I hope not! It was a feast of the senses. Touch … smell … sight … sound … and even taste. Who could wish for more?

    • Jeff McMahon September 28, 2011, 7:07 pm

      I remember when Borders was evil for putting indies out of business. The worm turns…