A Public Obscenity?
What does it mean to read a book in a public place these days?
It may seem counterintuitive, but the culture of reading, especially reading in public, has its own history of shame. in J.M. Coetzee's quasi-fictional text, "The Novel in Africa," Emmanuel Egudu, the unreliable native informant of Black African culture, accuses Europeans of shutting themselves in their cocoons with their books in every public place imaginable. In Africa, he says, we are not like that; we are too communal, too warm, too sensuous a culture to cut ourselves off from our fellow human beings to bury our noses in books.
In Coetzee's fellow South African Zoë Wicomb's short story, "Behind the Bougainvillea," the light-skinned mixed-race protagonist passes as white to get access to the indoor waiting room of the doctor's office while a crowd of black and coloured patients wait outside in the sun. To while away the time she opens a book but quickly decides against what she feels is the pretentious gesture of reading. She cannot bear this to add to her already-heavy guilt of racial passing.
Across the world, reading a book is the loaded gesture of the educated bourgeoisie, its ticket to progress and its mark of shame.
In Don Delillo's White Noise, the weirdest dystopian fantasy shoots through a character. What if the time comes when sex and conversation trade places in human society? What if it becomes the normal thing to ask for – and offer – sex on the very first meeting, including accidental ones, while conversation becomes a dark and forbidden pleasure?
Quickly, the character sees a chilling future: people having sex in coffee shops and train stations with nobody batting an eyelid, while at the same time seeking out the darkest and most clandestine of locations to talk about the weather: dark stairwells, abandoned warehouses, deserted streets. Kissing of the most passionate kind is done in open air, while people can dare to shake hands only under the table where adulterers used to play footsie in the past. Sex is easy but conversation has the weight of courtship.
The scariest thing about dystopias is that they have a root in the real. We're always halfway into a dystopia (The good news is that the same works for utopias too). I'm serious, therefore, when I say that a prime contender for the forbidden act today is reading a book in public.
Readers of the Literature page of The Daily Star will understand. You are already part of this forbidden public. You remember the time when it was common to see people reading real books in public places: airports, flights, trains, doctor's offices – again, real books, not the glossy excuses for magazines they stock there. You don't have to be ancient to remember this; quite enough if you have active memory that stretches fifteen or at most twenty years. Look around now – in trains and planes and metros and public places of every ilk. Nobody's reading a book. Not that we've travelled much during these pandemic times. We still remember.
It hit me one day while waiting in an airport. It was a moment of shame, of getting caught in an illicit act in public. Because the illicit changes shape across time and space. There are places in America now where smoking in public will draw more toxic glances than carrying a gun.
We now live on the other end of the time when reading a book was a ticket to rebellion. Stories of young unmarried women in 19th century Bengal swiftly hiding books under their pillows so that nobody could catch them reading novels now make up harmless jokes. That rebel modernity is now a fossil.
I cannot escape the aura of fossil activism because I, too, come from the other end. I got my first IPhone in 2008, given to me by my then employer, Stanford University. For the next eight years, living on Palo Alto's University Avenue, a few blocks away from Facebook's original office and Silicon Valley's most prized Apple Store, I updated my IPhone every year, to find that I was programmed to check my email and social media at every traffic light for which I had to press on the brake for 60 seconds. I gave up using a smartphone when I relocated to India in 2016. Have never been happier in my life. Still, there is a price to pay: the sensory (never mind the virtual) exclusion from the public community of smartphoners. They are both in sync with the times and truly enmeshed in a community while one feels like an ancient outlier, never more when pulling out a (often hardcover) book in public.
Benedict Anderson described print culture as the creator of the imagined community. By reading the same newspaper, strangers throughout the land, who would never meet one another, formed a national community. Online communities aside, the physical reality of a roomful of people glued to their smartphones also creates a sensory community. There, the one reading a book might as well scream: "Keep your distance. I'm not one of you." Not a pleasant feeling.
I pull out my book while waiting to pick up my children at their school. My exclusion from the community of WhatsApping parents is cemented by the odd and obsolete gesture of standing in a corner and reading a book under the midday sun. In airport lounges, my hardcover book, usually with the dustjacket off, wears a crusty library body and looks Palaeolithic next to the seemingly magnetic tablets of the tweens, decadent beside the blue-toothed IPhones of conference-calling corporate citizens.
Of the many ways reading a book is like prayer, this one is perhaps the most important: they both have the appearance of isolation when they are both actually about communication. Like the faithful, the reader thrives best in a physical community. Hence temples, churches and mosques, where we pray together. Hence public reading rooms of libraries, where we can read together. Once upon a time our public spaces used to be reading spaces, where we communicated silently with strangers through our shared love of words printed on paper. Those of us who still read in public are now left in the cold. The act is obsolete enough to become radical again.
Saikat Majumdar's books include the novels The Firebird and The Scent of God.