The Published Word, and the Reader Inside

I’ve often wondered how accurate instinctual reactions to the reading preferences of new acquaintances or absolute strangers can really be. Ever since I made the incredibly stupid mistake, ca. a dozen years ago, of studying in public with a textbook labeled “Biblical Hebrew,” I’ve had a sort of heightened awareness of the unwanted attention a simple book in your hand can bring you. In that instance, an overzealous young dude in molester spectacles plopped down in front of me, so that I couldn’t see the back of his jacket covered in flames and asking all viewers to consider where they’d be spending the rest of eternity. He assumed my class materials would make me sympathetic to the condemnations he cheerily started spouting about a multitude of sinners, a barrage that my idealistically inept self tried to stem, with a predictable lack of success.

Every now and then, I have to recall this evangelist’s erroneous expectations, especially when I meet a guy who waxes lyrical about Camus or Updike. After all, one’s own exposure to just a tiny percentage of these authors’ fans doesn’t mean that the rest of their devotees will follow their predecessors’ pattern, and start mansplaining about something or other before the conversation is over.

And I also wonder what sort of first (or only) impression my own reading casts– as, for instance, on the train this morning, where I found myself immersed in an article in The New Yorker that featured a full-page image of a giant sign someone in Trump Country had hung up, featuring Hillary Clinton behind bars. Would the young urbanites temporarily sharing my personal space make easy assumptions about that distressing photograph in my hands– or were my worries my own problem, in that I didn’t trust my fellow passengers to possess the critical awareness that reading about something does not equate to supporting that something? My jumpiness may have been more indicative of what a polarized farce politics in this country has become, and the nastiness that interactions between strangers can take on due to that lamentable situation.

I almost hoped that, if anyone was making any unfavorable assumptions about me (and let’s be honest, if anyone even bothered to notice any individual in the usual pre-work crowd), it was due to the freakish sight of someone attending to entire pages– on actual paper!– populated by nothing but words. In that case, I would simply be consigned to the irrelevance of the old and démodé, a place that, strange to say, I’m not really all that disappointed to inhabit. But in the end, that anxiety lasted all of about one minute, and by the time I’d gotten off at my stop, my passing angst had been overtaken by ten other concerns. I’m still, though, considering a further exploration of how accurately the reading one enjoys reflects the person enjoying it. Input is always welcome.



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