Can’t not know.

Reaching the highest echelons of personal fulfillment, as the assistant manager of a retail establishment, it often fell to me to check the bags of departing employees to ensure that everyone was leaving work sans stolen materials. While I have never had cause to question unpurchased items in anyone’s possession, and never really expected to, no one left the store without also showing me any books they happen to by carrying around with them.

After a while, I never had to even ask—protocol required that when Rachel checked you out of the store, you also had to show her the books in your bag, because she’s going to want to know. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same one as yesterday or last week or last month, she’ll want to know regardless.

I don’t really think that this curiosity is at all specific to me, but it is an interesting one. On the train or walking along the street, I never feel the need to inspect the stores or brands on peoples’ shopping bags or wonder about the food they’ve chosen to eat or any other personal preference. I go out of my way, however, to get a look at the title of the book anyone may be reading. I know I’m not the only one—I often catch people craning or twisting in odd positions to get a glimpse at the front cover of my reading material as well. Usually, I just lift the book up higher to make it easier for whoever is interested

With people you know, like my co-workers at the store, invasive book snooping is a way to get to know them better and to spark conversation. That makes sense—reading preference tells a lot about a person, far more than any other taste, I believe. Reading takes more work and focus than watching a movie or listening to an album, and so what one actually chooses to read must mean something.

But why does it matter what complete strangers have open in front of them? Why does anyone who has any literary interest at all care what someone else they have never seen before and will never see again has chosen to read on this particular day? Is it for comparison? I know I feel a kinship with anyone I see reading a favorite of mine, but rarely do I ever actually strike up conversation with them all the same. I could, I suppose, and then we would say that this need to know is a basic human instinct for interaction and communication with our fellow members of society, but I don’t know that this is true. I know I also love it when I see someone who so perfectly fits one “type” reading a book or magazine or journal that is so stereotypically opposite from what their outward appearance would portend. Is it then just for personal amusement?

While I don’t know why I care or why anyone else does either, I know that it bothers me to no end when no amount of craning or contortions will let me see what another is reading and that this doesn’t apply to any other personal affectation. Do you have any insights? Have you ever had a great conversation with a stranger based solely on what one of you was reading in a public place?

Also, on your way out the door, please remember to take your book out with the cover and title clear so I can see.

7 Responses to Can’t not know.

  1. One of the drawbacks to eReaders is that you can’t see what anyone else is reading. Airports and airplanes are a lot less interesting now (though I have a Kindle myself, and I love carrying 50 books around in a tiny little bundle).

    I used to fantasize about stumbling into someone reading one of my books, but alas, it has never happened.

  2. Cora Zane says:

    I don’t know why I crane to see what someone’s reading. I’ve never really thought about it. Curiosity? To see if I’d be interested in reading that book too? Either or both. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to ask someone about a book. One glance at the cover and I’m usually satisfied, even if I can’t quite make out the title. Hmm. Next time I spot a book out in the wild, I’ll have to analyze my craning habit.

    On my way out the door: holds up a copy of Skin by Kathe Koja.

  3. Donn says:

    I think it’s partly self-validation, and partly I-just-can’t-help-reading-any-and-all-visible-text-placed-within-view syndrome.

    It’s a common affliction, please consult your doctor if you think you may have been affected.

  4. You can find out a lot about a person to see what they’re reading! If it’s someone you know, you find out even more when you ask how they like the book. What’s kind of sad is people at work see me with different book at lunch and remark, “I can’t believe how much you read! How do you find the time?” If you like to read, you read. You open a book instead of turning on The Bachelor Pad (which I did NOT do the other day and regretted having to see Jake & whoevers “drama”).

    I love talking books with people. Even if they read a totally different genre, I find out more about them as a person.

  5. christi says:

    I never noticed I do this, but I’m terribly guilty of it. I wander around at work and stop in cubicles and chat just because a book has caught my eye, and I want to know if it’s any good. Which is weird, considering the person’s taste might be very different from my own.

    *Flashes cover of American Gods as she walks out the door*

  6. Lisa Borja says:

    Eugene, Ore., has a community reading month that helps spark conversations between strangers based on the reading material they’re carrying around. “Readin’ in the Rain” usually happens in chilly rainy February when bonding with new people is likely to stave off some serious blues. The committee picks one book by a Pacific Northwest author and promotes it and its themes. It is sanctioned book-gawking at its finest. I loved being a part of it.

    Oh, that thinnish paperback next to my kombucha? THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE by Phillip Pullman.

  7. Hillsy says:

    I read almost exclusively on the commute. However, being English the proper decorum for public transport is to never engage a stranger in eye contact, let alone start a conversation with one! I’ve occasionally glanced down on the tube to find the person beneath my armpit is reading a book I’ve read in the last 12 months. Of course like a polite Englishman I just nod knowingly to myself.

    *Picks up Judas Unchained: Peter F Hamilton. (Don’t need to flash the cover. The books 1250 pages long – you can see that damn thing from space!)

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