A Pox on Over-the-Shoulder Readers

Jennifer Paull

Staff Writer

Jennifer Paull walks quickly.

This morning, in the subway, it happened again. The subtle lean, the breath on my shoulder, the eyes roaming where they shouldn’t. It wasn’t a shameful invasion of my personal space. Someone was just reading over my shoulder. And for a split second, I was tempted to throw an elbow.

For some unplumbed reason, I’ve always hated it when people read over my shoulder. Anything I have in hand—whether a letter, a popular book, or an innocuous magazine—becomes a sensitive field of intrusion. When eyes drift onto it, I sense them latch on, and I get distracted, irritated, shifty.

Even though I can quickly lose myself in reading, a looky-loo jars me right out of it. I’ve been so engrossed in a story that I’ll miss a bus stop, but let someone crane their neck a few degrees toward me and my hackles go up.

Sometimes I’ll instinctively roll my shoulder, an unthinking reaction to a creeping, prickly-heat feeling. Whatever I’m reading becomes personal, with the potential for invasion. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. As a kid, I could share the Sunday comics with my sister only by spreading them out flat on the kitchen floor, an even field of color, so that we could read the smudged panels side by side.

I used to try to argue myself out of this reaction: It’s ungenerous, silly, childish. Letting people read over my shoulder is harmless and might give them a welcome diversion. If someone asks me about what I’m reading, I’m usually happy to talk about it, so why get tetchy if they simply look? But all the mental finger-wagging hasn’t helped.

I’m far from alone in feeling annoyed. The habit has probably bugged readers ever since Gutenberg started churning out those Bibles. A Rutgers professor recently found mention of this pet peeve in an 18th-century guide to manners, which noted: “It is barbarous, and argues the height of indiscretion to peep over anyone’s shoulder when he is writing; and ungenteel when he is reading.”

And yet… I understand the urge. There are moments when even I am tempted to ungenteel peepery. If I somehow find myself on a slow commute or delayed plane with little to read, my eyes will be drawn to the nearest newspaper even as I chide myself for hypocrisy.

I also wonder if using laptops, e-readers, and other devices in public will start desensitizing us to over-the-shoulder reading. With screens’ wide viewing angles, it’s easier to take a gander.

Then there’s Seen Reading, the blog and just-released book by author and reader-peeker Julie Wilson, who calls herself a “literary voyeur.” While riding public transit in Toronto, she’d look at what her fellow commuters were reading, spy out the page number, and later check that particular page to find out exactly what they were reading. Then she wrote vignettes about each reader.

Wilson claims that her fellow commuters never notice her observations, since she limits herself to quick glimpses in public spaces. She encourages people to join her in literary voyeurism and to tweet their sightings. Some of her micro-fictions sound quite charming—but I’m relieved not to be on her turf.


How about you: Are you bothered by people reading over your shoulder? Or do you happily cop to literary voyeurism?