A book on a train can be a powerful shibboleth. I see What You’re Reading, I know Who You Are. Right? Well, maybe not so definitively, but if you’re persnickety about books and the same about people, the books in the hands of the people provide a useful if cynical filter. Maybe on your commute you see somebody reading one of your favorites and it spurs you to strike up a chat. Or maybe you’re thinking of saying hello, then a book you’d never touch is brandished and you decide not to bother. We can wish that they didn’t, or even pretend that they don’t, but the books that we read say things about us, and, as the hilariously blunt Better Book Titles often points out, we might not always love what they’re saying.
This, of course, is old news. Books-as-signifiers came up again and again in those oh-so-recent yet clearly bygone early days of the Kindle, when every style section and book review back page bemoaned the eReader’s crippling attack on judgmental voyeurism. No longer could you so easily size people up by their reading material – no telling what they were working through on that maddeningly vacant device. The flip side of this loss for the watchers was the new privacy for readers, and it was assumed that traditionally stigmatized material would thrive in the new format. Those predictions proved accurate, of course – erotica and romance titles are thriving as eBooks.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about eReaders as possibly enabling the enjoyment of genres beyond those typically degraded. Or, rather, I’ve had occasion to consider the possibility of a broader spectrum of books about which one might be bashful. The spark initially, like that of much book chatter this fall, was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s not lowbrow in any of the ways for which eReaders are said to provide cover. It is, in fact, the most celebrated piece of literary fiction in years. The annoyance for me is that it’s gone so far past celebration. There was the media fuss this summer over President Obama trying to buy the book ahead of release at a Martha’s Vineyard shop. The coverage of Franzen’s détente with Oprah. His private chat at the White House late last month. The kerfuffle over his European publisher printing and distributing the wrong version of the book, with Franzen himself making headlines and startling the supply chain by publicly announcing that all copies would be replaced. Cripes, the man’s eyeglasses were abducted and held for ransom. Seriously, they were.
It’s more than a book, is the thing. It’s a spectacle. And, yeah, I should probably read Freedom, but I'd rather not be part of the spectacle for the month or two of commutes it’d take me to slog through. So, Freedom is the very first thing to make me sort of want an eReader maybe a little. Quick download, and then I could work my way through it on the train for as long as it took, and nobody would be the wiser. I’m almost ashamed to say that the very thought was liberating.
Now, believe me, I’m prepared to just chalk this urge up to my own grandiose, paranoid secrecy. But I can't help noting that the only time I’ve been tempted by the idea of an eReader has been to facilitate my reading of the type of book that even the general literati are usually proud to tote.
And now I’m wondering if maybe publishing as an industry has underestimated the variety of stigmatized literature for which eReaders could be a boon. More specifically, could university presses be due a shot in the arm from ashamed fans of political philosophy, shy classicists, sheepish social scientists, reticent history buffs, and self-conscious literary theorists? Could eBooks do for nerdy nonfiction what they’ve done for Harlequin and the like? Are there closet academics who’ll find freedom (or Freedom) in the anonymity of eReaders?
I figured I should do some research, so I asked a friend if she’d ever had occasion to regret reading something scholarly in public. She scoffed at first, but then told me a story about having once ended up seated next to a favorite artist on a long flight, and wishing her nose was buried in something a bit more catchy than Hans Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law.
That poll scientific enough for you? The results are clear: very soon university press eBook sales will skyrocket, and smarties of the world will find privacy through eReaders. You heard it here first.