Nice book you're reading

Among the pleasures of reading books is the way they can become social objects, conversational ice-breakers
Among the pleasures of reading books is the way they can become social objects, conversational ice-breakers

I used to have a knitted book cover, just the right size to slip over a paperback. I got it at the same crafts fair where I found the homely yellow-and-orange teapot cozy that makes the pot look just like a severed head wearing a winter cap. (Still, it does keep the tea nice and warm.)

The book cover instantly turned the trashiest novel into something mysterious. Or at least less obviously trashy. I used it often on airplanes, back when I cared what strangers thought of me.

These days my reading, like most of my opinions, is right out there. Take it or leave it; roll your eyes or agree with enthusiasm. Whatever.

This open-book policy has a real upside, and a recent wonderful post in the Guardian Book Blog captures it. Lively writer Molly Flatt talks about public encounters in which strangers comment on the book she's reading:

Novels aren't just sources of solitary cogitation. They are social objects, and we use them to brandish our identities, mark our allegiances, and broker our relationships.

Well said. I'd add that books provide one of the last safe and polite ways to engage a stranger. I've arrived at the point in life where my saying "What a great purse!" to a younger woman is not much of a compliment. Who wants accessory admiration from someone carrying her stuff around in a Trader Joe's canvas sack?

But saying "I love Randy Sue Coburn! She's from Seattle, you know! Have you read her other books?" is not only a welcome comment; it usually leads to a conversation well worth having. Sometimes it creates a more lasting bond, as it did two summers ago when a tourist on the Portland streetcar asked me about the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography I was carrying. Our chatting led to coffee and dinner, and we've been emailing cross-country since.

As with any social intercourse, there are some partners one should avoid. I've learned that it is a very bad idea to try to engage over anything by Dan Brown. That may be because I've never been able to say anything except, "You like The Da Vinci Code? You're kidding me, right?" Likewise, any book with "Conscience-driven" or "Chicken Soup" in the title just gets me into trouble.

Oh, and the old dude in the park reading that library copy of Tropic of Cancer? Just keep on walking right past him, trust me.


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