A few months ago I saw something circulating online that made me feel seen—Bette Davis’s divorce announcement, published in 1938 by The New York Times. Why did the article speak to me, a non-divorced non-starlet? It was the revelation that Davis’s ex-husband felt she “read ‘to an unnecessary degree.'”
“She even insisted on reading books or manuscripts when he had guests,” the report continues.
My husband isn’t planning to leave me because of my reading habits. I like to think my bookish nature is part of why he likes me in the first place. But I do read when we have guests, sometimes. Or while we watch movies, or play board games, or ride the train. Once I even read at a wedding (before the ceremony started, I’m not a total monster).
I credit my ability to pick up a book in just about any situation with the fact that I chew through volumes at what my brother-in-law once endearingly called “an alarming rate.” There’s almost no condition in which I cannot read, and I always have a book on me just in case.
Of course, I don’t read when it’s blatantly rude. If we’re at a restaurant together I’m not going to reach under the table and pull out the latest Tana French mystery. If you get up from the table for a few minutes, though, don’t be surprised if you return to see me hurriedly finishing my page before you sit back down.
I’m a rule follower, but I’m content to break the social norm that says reading should be done in solitude. Reading in public is great. It’s a way for me to recharge at my most introverted. Sometimes a book can even be a conversation starter. Who needs small talk when you can discuss literature with an acquaintance instead? Sometimes if I’m hanging out in a small group, or even tucked into a shadowed corner at a party, I’ll sneak in a couple of pages.
People often seem, if not offended, at least a little bit perplexed by my unabashed reading around them. But at the end of the day, is it not similar to pulling out a cell phone during a conversational low moment? The medium might be different, but the function is much the same. It’s a break from the flow of socializing without actually leaving the party.
What makes a smartphone so different from a hardback anyway? Is it sheer size that implies closing off from human interaction? The perceived self-seriousness of reading? Immersing yourself in a book does feel like more of an undertaking than a quick thumb graze through Twitter. Yet, I maintain that I should be allowed to read just about anywhere people feel comfortable pulling out their phones. If I can watch a few Instagram Stories while hanging out, why can’t I also digest a few sentences of my current book-in-progress?
I’m not going to apologize for using books as a social crutch. At least not until society swears off Candy Crush while our dinner dates are in the bathroom.