Bookworms in Public


A few weeks ago at the swimming pool near my home, I took advantage of the first (and seemingly last) day of spring by enjoying my swim outside.

There was a tiny chill in the air but once in the water I was perfectly comfortable. And so were the others. Lots of people had taken the opportunity to enjoy the sun after such a long winter, and, though we didn’t know it, before another minor winter.

It was while breathing during my front crawl that something was catching my eye. On a bench to the right of the pool was a well-proportioned young woman who was doing a dress rehearsal in her bikini before the summer. I became mesmerized.

Reach. Pull. Breathe. Stare. Reach. Pull. Breathe. Stare. Reach. Pull. Choke. Stare. You get the idea.

After getting out of the water, I passed by the woman and looked directly at her, even obviously scrutinizing commodities near her chest. When I looked up at her face, she was perched in the facial expression version of “Well, why don’t you take a picture, scumbag!”

It was only after I’d danced my chilly ass to the showers and toed my bathing suit against the wall that I realized she’d been cross with me. I felt the urge to go back outside and explain that while I had been directly looking at her, I was I was in fact trying to read the title on the cover of her book.

If you are a bookworm then you fully understand the attention you give them in public. When I am on a tram or metro or in a café or pub, my eyes are instantly drawn to the other books in the area. It can make me like the people holding them, dislike them, roll my eyes, or want to say ‘Hey! I read that too! As with my pool adventure, it can even get me in trouble. E-readers do not seem to hold the same magic over me, so, to their unknowing delight, I largely ignore them.

One quirk the Czechs have is that they often cover their books like I used to in grade school. They use thick brown paper, sometimes multicolored paper, or even something like newspaper or a comics sheet. The rounded Bohemian faces of a Lada scene or the gawking drunken mooks of one of Urban’s bar scenes have been protectors of a secret tome.

Some aspect of this custom can probably be traced to the historical distrusts as regards the intentions of others. Keeping things close to your chest is just good thinking when you don’t know if a neighbor will rat you out. Surely, though, it can also be explained as a first line of defense about the nosy Czechs. Czechs love eyeing up a person’s book and even reading over one’s shoulder. I have altered text messages to include my unwanted reader as a character and the hypothetical pain that will be inflicted upon their genitalia if they don’t stop reading over my shoulder.

Now, instead of mocking, I kind of get it. And that’s because I have recently read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with Krakauer’s take on the brief life and early death of Christopher McCandless; it is at its core a philosophical adventure book, a good story, well-reported. The problem lies in context.

I am in Prague. Something like Into the Wild is just what a guy like me should be reading and I have become that guy. I have walked around comfortably with westerns, self-help books, horror, pulp thrillers and mysteries. Without shame, I have whipped out 50 Shades of Grey and Dan Brown’s Deception Point on a tram and never given it a second thought.

It’s other books in English that give me pause, the ones I am supposed to be reading as an expatriate living in Europe. These can include books from authors such as Hemingway and Kafka, Robert Pirsig and Captain Overrated himself, Jack Kerouac. Sometimes, and without any other information, the sight of these books on the tram makes me roll my eyes. And conceivably Into the Wild fits right in there with them. I feel as though each eye that dropped on the book cover rolled and jump-started the same inner monologue about me: Oh yes, we get it, you are, like, so philosophical and such a free spirit.

I want to jump up and shout that while I liked the writing, I hated the main character. I didn’t admire him, I found him to be an arrogant fool who died because he broke the first rule of travel or adventure: the rules apply to you, you are not special.

But I don’t say that to anyone. Instead I think I’ll just invest in some brown paper or maybe a few sheets of Lada’s cartoons.

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