Columns > Published on August 5th, 2014

The Perils of Reading in Public

It’s a risky endeavor to take a book out of the house. Finding a quiet moment in bed is relatively easy, and the couch is always happy to oblige a book binge, but the outside world is a tough and unforgiving place for readers.

The logic behind trying to read in public is obvious. Potentially calm moments abound: long plane rides, even longer little league games, visits to the beach, waiting in the car during a shopping trip. Even the simple desire to get some sun with a minimum of physical exertion is a perfectly valid reason to grab a book and a picnic blanket.

But as much as we book lovers can’t waste an idle minute on anything but a book, we must accept that reading in public is fraught with problems.

There’s the threat of dropping a book in a puddle; the problem of how to read a book and pay attention to traffic at the crosswalk simultaneously; the noise of a busy park; and of course, sunlight can be painfully bright when reflected off a page.

But none of those reasons address the real threat: people.

Finding a quiet moment in bed is relatively easy...but the outside world is a tough and unforgiving place for readers.

The thing that makes reading in public so hard is also the thing that makes public, well, public. Some people just can’t help but talk to us while we’re reading a book. Which is funny considering that reading in public is one of the most inherently (and intentionally) isolating tactics we have. Well, aside from bad hygiene. It’s saying to the world, “I find the characters and concepts in this book to be more interesting than anything you have to say.” It’s the silent anthem of the introvert, and until the invention of the headphones, it was the easiest way to block out everyone around us.

Apparently, some people see this as a challenge. They can’t resist approaching while we’re perfectly content in our ink-and-paper world. They willfully destroy the cocoon of words we’ve wrapped ourselves in, leaning over the armrest to intrude on our thoughts. They can’t pass a park bench without making a comment. They, heaven help us, sidle over to say, “So, reading, huh?”

They don’t understand that the fastest way to offend a reader is to interrupt a good book for anything short of a fire.

So why do they do it? Why do they feel compelled to bother someone who is clearly content to be alone in the crowd? Here are just a few of the motivations, nay delusions, they suffer under.

Opinion (Perpetrator: The Impromptu Book Club Moderator)

Some people are convinced anyone and everyone will appreciate their cultivated, thoughtful, and completely moronic opinion. They always lead with a seemingly unbiased question like, “What do you think so far?” Don’t be fooled. It’s only a way of wedging the door open so they can thrust their pestilent, drooping opinion upon you, with the ultimate goal of convincing you that the author clearly had a particular point of view that only coincidentally matches their own.

Judgement (Perpetrator: The Snob)

While related to having a strong opinion, this motivation is more focused on the book than the concepts within. These people can’t believe you would waste time on that book when you could be occupied with the clearly superior books on their own shelves at home. They don’t want to talk about your “sub-standard” book, they only want to replace it. Immediately.

Pity (Perpetrator: The Savior)

Some people believe that the only reason you’re reading a book is because you can’t entertain yourself, or perhaps that you are too shy to start a conversation. The idea that we wouldn’t want to chatter with strangers about absolutely nothing is completely unfathomable to them, so they take it upon themselves to rescue us from ourselves.

Boredom (Perpetrator: The Talker)

The opposite of the Savior. These people  are so concerned with their own boredom that they insist on dragging you into conversation, just so they don’t have to be alone with their own thoughts. Usually they lead with something ridiculous, like, “Whatcha doin’?” requiring the reader to exercise the utmost self-control not to reply, “I was enjoying this book until you opened your mouth.” Sometimes they talk about the book in your hands, but they don’t really care about it.

There’s an interesting but insufferable subset of people in this category who insist on reading over your shoulder or out of the corner of their eye. It’s the worst because the only option is to move or endure their breath on your neck, which is no way to live a reading life.

Enthusiasm (Perpetrator: The Spoiler)

Even other readers can be part of the problem. Some people get so excited you’re reading a book they love that they can’t help but gush about it, all over you. Before you know it, they spoil the ending you were really looking forward to, and insist you start reading everything else on their Goodreads list. While it’s easy to appreciate the enthusiasm, it instantly destroys the experience.

These are the perils of reading in public. Maybe there’s nothing to be done. Maybe we must accept that we’ll be interrupted at the best part of any book. Maybe we’ll always be vulnerable to the guy who wants to prove why a paperback is superior to an eReader device, or vice versa.

But one thing is for sure: We will endure.

About the author

Daniel Hope is a writer, ukelele player, and unrepentant nerd. He has worked as a technology journalist (too frantic), a PR writer (too smarmy), and a marketing writer (too fake). He is currently the Managing Editor of Fiction Vortex, an online publication for science fiction and fantasy short stories. At FV, he's known as the Voice of Reason. That means FV staff members wish he would stop worrying all the time. He thinks they should stop smiling so much.

Daniel Hope lives in California and dreams of writing more. When distraught about his output, he consoles himself with great beaches and gorgeous weather. He recently published his science fiction novel, The Inevitable, on the Kindle Store and Smashwords. Find out more at his site:

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