Reading a book is the universal symbol that you want to be left alone. A book in hand wards off unwanted attempts at conversation on plane or train, essentially transforming public space into private. Even listening to music via headphones is more communal, since your tunes can be faintly overheard. Reading is deadly silent apart from the turning of pages or the tapping and scrolling of screens. Because we perceive reading as a form of solitude, whenever we encounter readers in the wild, we tend to leave them be.
Reading a book in public is also an invitation. If you were reading a private letter, I wouldn’t intrude. The same goes for your smartphone screen. But read a book and I will do my best to get a look at the page, to figure out what you’re reading so I can know more about you. I don’t feel bad about this snooping, because reading a book in public is also a secret handshake, and I’m an initiate. As a fellow traveler I know that your gesture isn’t meant to exclude me.
The invitation and the secret handshake are more important to me than the isolation, which is why I keep committing to read with friends. To begin with, I only did this in the context of book clubs, but now the practice had branched out. Last year my friend Jeff discovered Patricia Highsmith and decided to read her Ripliad, five novels that feature high brow sociopath Tom Ripley. Was I interested in reading along with him? The books were enjoyable, but being able to talk about them was better still. All too often we have to keep the private world of fiction to ourselves.
Earlier this summer, my friend Anthony started a Facebook group called “Swann’s Way Summer,” devoted to reading the first installment in Marcel Proust’s epic In Search of Lost Time. I signed on, having always wanted to get past page ten of Swann’s Way. (I succeeded, but it’s no longer summer and I’m still far from finished.) Writing a novel makes reading them harder. Supplement your daily output with a dose of Proust and you’ll throw out most of what you write out of envy and shame. You would think that under the circumstances, I would decline any additional group reading projects.
You would be wrong.
Today Jeff got in touch with an idea to re-live our Ripliad glory. This time the five novels would be John Buchan’s Richard Hannay books, which we have now dubbed the Hannaiad. Fortunately I’ve already read The 39 Steps (and seen every film adaptation, of which there are many). I’m even two pages into Greenmantle. Jeff’s suggestion corresponded to a desire I already had, which is why the Penguin edition of the complete Hannay novels has been on my shelf for the past few months. My only regret is that I didn’t buy the Folio Society set of the five novels I came across in San Diego back in June. That would have been perfect.
There’s a lot to be said for solitude. We don’t get enough of it these days. Strange as it sounds, reading with friends doesn’t deprive you of solitude. It lets you share the solitude with someone else.