Judging a person by their book covers

In olden days when people used to read printed books, if you saw someone reading in public, you might be able to make some guesses about them based on what they were reading.

(Those guesses might have been wrong, of course.)

And in particular, you might be able to get a sense of whether they shared your tastes in fiction; and if they were reading something you were interested in, you might be able to strike up a conversation.

(Of course, some people hate that; they're busy reading, they don't want to be interrupted by a stranger who wants to talk.)

I always had this vague fantasy that if I read books that I loved in public places (like, say, on an airplane), some attractive person who shared my tastes would notice me and we could talk about books. The fact that this has never happened to me, in twenty-some years of reading in public, was no deterrent to the fantasy—to the point that when I'm reading something that I'm embarrassed about (like military sf) in a public place, I sometimes try to make the cover less obvious.

It occurred to me today, reading The Deed of Paksenarrion on my iPhone while waiting for my plane, that those days are over. In the new world of ebooks, you can't tell what someone is reading by glancing at the cover; the cover will only tell you what technology they're using.

Which, of course, can be a way to strike up a conversation as well. “I see you have a Kindle; how do you like it?” I suppose bonding over a shared liking of technology is at least as likely as bonding over a shared love of, say, Le Guin. (I've certainly had many more conversations with strangers about my gadgets than about my taste in fiction.) But I think a person liking Le Guin is probably a more reliable indicator of my liking them than liking gadgets is.

Besides, in the post-print future in which this blog entry is set, it won't be surprising any more to see someone reading from a Kindle (or an iPad, or whatever else), so that avenue of discussion will likely be blocked.

I suppose strangers might still bond over books in one circumstance, though:

“Wow, I see you're reading an actual paper book! Are you [lowers voice] a bibliophile? Me, too! Wanna come over and see my collection?”

7 Responses to “Judging a person by their book covers”

  1. eclectic-boy

    I want to file this idea alongside those ’80s-era pangs of, “but there won’t be those big, gorgeous album covers any more!”
    Of course, the very idea of “filing alongside” implies a pre-computer-era information storage system…

    • Jed

      Hee! Well put. And I think the new phrasing should be “file this idea with a link to” or maybe “file this idea with the same tag as.”

      Also under the same tag: Nicholson Baker’s heartfelt but misguided lament for the passing of the card catalogue.

      And “With the creation of movable type, we won’t have these gorgeous illuminated manuscripts any more!”

      I welcome other contributions to this genre.

      Also, anyone have any suggestions for a name for this kind of lament for the loss of a beloved side effect of a rapidly obsolescing technology?

      • Jed

        I should add that I don’t intend to mock people who are sad about the loss of such things; I agree that they’re a loss.

  2. textjunkie

    And of course, when I get my direct plug-in behind my ear, you won’t know if that glazed look in my eyes is because I’m reading some online work of literature, or simply dozing off… 🙂

    I’d tag that with the same tag as not knowing whether the guy talking to himself on the street is schizophrenic or wearing a bluetooth earpiece.

  3. jacob

    Hey — here’s a million dollar idea. A location based iPhone app that shows you what books people nearby (who have opted in, of course) are reading. If you see one you like, you can pop up a little message on their screen: “Hey — I’m the guy in the orange jacket next to the soda machine. I see you’re reading Franny and Zooey. Wanna chat about it?”

  4. Michael

    I miss user-selected tags. Back during Web 2.0, when we had finally moved beyond the constraint-based metaphors of physical objects, we used to have to choose tags ourselves for items so we could retrieve them later based on metadata. It briefly morphed into ironic hashtagging, but most people didn’t miss tags after we developed arcar (automated robust content analysis and retrieval — the letters originally stood for something, just like radar or scuba). Tags were actually the best method for making sure other people could find your stuff before arcar, back when Google and punchcards and CDs were dominant. I don’t miss those, but I miss choosing tags for my vids. There was something soothing about the repetitive work.

  5. Steve Berman

    Ahh, but in the future, people will customize their e-readers. So if I happen to see a guy with an anodized pink Kindle, I will feel a bit more comfortable in chatting with him rather than the fellow who has a camo-skin on his. I’ll still look for the guy who has a Bela Lugosi charm dangling from his Nook though. Look in vein.


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