In Defense of Reading in Public
What may seem anti-social is steeped in connection.
He told me I was part of the problem. I don’t think we ever determined what “the problem” was. All I knew was that I, apparently, was furthering it. And it’s not good.
My transgression? Reading a book in bar.
To be clear, I’m not hanging out in a dive bar with the Yankee game in the background while bro-country plays on the jukebox and trying to really dive in to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
That’s absurd. It is not an environment condusive to reading. The wine bar, however. That’s the place to read.
I had mentioned during the conversation with my friend that I didn’t do it all that often but on occasion. His take on it was that places like bars and cafes are intended for social interaction and, by sticking my nose in a book, I was shutting myself out from the world. I was telling everyone to f*ck off. Whatever was in my book was more interesting than them.
Well, certainly. Kind of. But no. Not really. I have many reasons for doing it.
I’m a wild woman. I like to read and drink wine at the same time. I don’t think that these things have to happen at the same time only on my couch. It’s nice to leave my house and be out in public without having to feel the pressure of social interaction. Extroverted introvert problems.
I need decompression. I need “me time.” I need to clear my head and sometimes sitting on a beautiful patio or in a clean, well lighted cafe with a book fits the bill.
I also go out by myself a lot. Sitting at home for too long makes me feel cooped up. I don’t want to be on my phone all the time. Sitting in public on your phone shuts people out so much more than a book.
If I don’t have a book and I don’t want to be on my phone and I want to grab a glass of wine on a moment’s notice, what happens then? I sit in silence by myself and stare around the room. I know the drill. I’ve been there. It’s not exciting. After about 14 minutes, you have examined everything in the room twice. There is nothing left to do. And if random people don’t happen to just start talking to you, it can get boring and sad.
Grab a book and you have a whole other ballgame. Books are conversation starters. If I’m reading, many times people ask about the book. I have no problem with that. If I tell them about the book and it’s not their thing, we don’t generally move the conversational ball down the field and I go back to reading. But sometimes someone sees what I’m reading and comments and then a conversation happens.
I was in Denver on vacation by myself and went for brunch. It was a beautiful day and I wanted to sit outside on the patio. I was the only person out there. I had brought a book. I sat there on the cool patio, sipping a mimosa, and reading. I felt calm. I felt quiet. I felt good.
The waitress let me linger for a very long time. Eventually, someone came out on the patio and sat down a ways away. She took out a book and started reading. Immediately, we had something in common. I asked her what she was reading.
She ended up moving over by me and we talked for about a half an hour. That never would have happened it we both didn’t have a book.
I thought back to all the diners I’ve been to in my life. There seemed to be one constant — old guys sitting at a breakfast counter reading a newspaper.
Another guy could come in and see him at the counter and know that they read the exact same articles. Conversation about the news of the day ensues. That’s a social capital value proposition.
If we’re going to speak of isolation, I don’t think that social interaction needs to be black and white. Either we’re out in public and all in or we’re home and secluded. It doesn’t work like that.
Without a doubt, we certainly have problems with the rapid decline of human connection. But there is some humanity in reading. We need a reminder that books exist. I think the more we see them, the more we realize there is a world beyond that digital flashing lights we’ve become so used to.
There’s a softness life takes on when you enter the world of a book. Doing it in public moves people back to that in one way or another. Even if it’s a slight nudge.