Merbaum makes many excellent points, which anybody who’s tried to read in public places will find painfully familiar. But she makes one fundamental error: she assumes the challenges she faces reflect her gender. She assumes these men wouldn’t treat her thusly without her gender. She even equates book-based boorishness with leering and sexual harassment. I disagree. In my experience, the operant challenge here isn’t Merbaum’s gender; it’s her book.
Speaking as a dude who reads significantly, I’ve observed people—mostly indeed men—see my book as public invitation for conversation. Some are dedicated readers too, and want to share that experience. Others see my book as threatening them for reasons buried inside subtextual strata. Some just talk. But somehow, my book’s physical presence invites certain people, a small but vocal minority, to start talking, while I’m trying to read.
This week at work, I’ve been reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, about the rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem De Rerum Natura, a pivotal moment in the Italian Renaissance. On Tuesday, a goateed electrician asked the title, then began holding forth, at length, about something he’d read recently about Tipler cylinders. In fairness, the topic sounds fascinating; but I had thirty minutes to eat my sandwich and read, and didn’t solicit this conversation.
On Wednesday, a plumber noticed me reading, and began asking about the book. Who was Lucretius? Why is one poem so important? Why would Lucretius write about physics in verse? The plumber’s engagement was gratifying, I confess, but again, lunch break is brief, and I read partly to separate myself from the constant chatter around the workplace. Then on Thursday, the same electrician wanted to know more about the book.
Partly, I suspect, people notice the contrast between an essentially private, internal activity, reading, and my public venue. Like napping or changing clothes, reading publically isn’t necessarily offensive, but does make people feel awkward. Should I keep silent? Why would someone read in this noisy, cluttered environment? Is this person judging me because I’m not reading? My book creates cognitive dissonance they reconcile by trying to talk.
The fact that men mainly engage me at work proves little, since my workplace is overwhelmingly male. Of over a hundred workers, only four are women, and one speaks little English. But reading in other environments merits comments too, mostly from men. Reading in bars, as Merbaum notes, elicits male comments. Women leave me alone—even when I’d rather they spoke. Men feel compelled to talk about my book.
Restaurants, with seating turned inward, are somewhat better. Strangers don’t intrude. Except waiters. When women take my order, they respect my privacy, offering only whatever conversation is necessary to keep me fed. Male waiters talk. And not just waiters. Anneli Rufus recommends introverts eating alone dine at the bar, as it elicits fewer comments and judgmental stares. I say, don’t bring a book. Your bartender will try to converse.
This realization, that others plague me with unwanted conversation, makes things awkward when I see women reading publically. As an aging bachelor, I still hope someday to marry and start a family. And since I got unceremoniously ejected from my university job, I have vanishingly few opportunities to meet erudite women. Women reading in public are advertising their cerebral tendencies, their intellectual curiosity, their willingness to encounter new ideas.
They’re also advertising that they’d like to read their book. Watching the collision between reading, a private activity, and the public milieu, gives me pause. Are they open to approach because we’re amid people, or should I respect their solitude while reading? I usually give them their seclusion, because there’s no simple answer. But my trade-off, for respecting women’s privacy, is that I’m unmarried in my forties.
Unfortunately, there’s no etiquette for handling public readers. There’s no out-and-out censure like for clearly undesirable behavior, like fighting or groping. Neither is there a clearly acceptable test of willingness. Sighting a beautiful woman, I can sound her out by buying her next drink… unless she’s reading. So I understand Merbaum’s complaint, from both sides. I lack any suitable solution.