Judging by Your Book’s Cover

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic published a pretty cool series of graphs highlighting how reading habits have changed over the past couple of decades (h/t The Daily Dish). In summing up the results, Thompson said

The big winner, as I see it, is phones, which have exploded as a source of reading in the last few years…As the smart phone war between iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm, Android, etc heats up, the competition will only drive up their capacity and utility and encourage more people to think of their phones as small computers that can make calls, rather than phones pretending as small computers.

I can certainly see this being the case for purely functional reading. The type of technology Thompson is talking about has already massively changed the way people work – making many people more efficient, at the same time as cutting ever deeper into people’s personal lives and downtime. But in terms of reading for pleasure, I have always been skeptical about how quickly something like the Kindle would catch on.

This could be purely from the nosey Luddite part of me, but I think a big part of reading in public is allowing other people to see what you are reading. Books can be a great way to break the ice, to impress people (writer Nick Hornby talks of how he used to ensure he had a Penguin Classics with him at all times when he was a teenager to ensure any girl he met would see the sensitive intellectual side of him), and create immediate links. I’ll often get an idea of what to read from looking at the books that people have with them.

Of course, there is are also downsides to this. Just as I judge others on what they are reading, I often become a little self-conscious about bringing certain titles out in public. I wrote about this a while back in relation to a book I was reading by Melissa Bank. In that case, I confessed to feeling uncomfortable about reading books with ‘girly’ covers because of how I thought people might judge me (and trust me, I am not proud about it). I got over that fear pretty quickly once I realised that Bank was such a superb writer, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t made judgement calls like it since. In a similar vein, I am reading Lolita at the moment and find myself trying to hide the cover in certain situations (ie on the bus if surrounded by school children or young mothers).

Despite this, I fear that if we all start using Kindles, or some related technology in the future, some of the social worth of books will be destroyed, making the act of reading ever more of a private activity. I would be kind of sad to see that happen.