A couple of years ago when I was travelling home from university, I was lucky enough to bump into a course mate who was travelling the same way. We spent the journey discussing the usual topics, university classes, boyfriends, dwindling student finances… eventually, we touched on the topic of 50 Shades of Grey, which at that point was stealing the headlines due to its booming success. After slating the quality of the writing (as well as the author’s rather questionable views on what constitutes a functioning relationship), my friend and I looked at each other and admitted that we had, in fact, both read the first and were part-way through the second. We laughed over our hypocrisy and then my friend took the book out of her bag that she intended to read for the rest of the journey, a hardback by Daphne du Maurier.
“I thought you said you were reading 50 Shades of Grey?” I asked her.
“Yeah well, come on. I’m not exactly going to read that on the train, am I?” she laughed.
At the time, I had accepted this without comment, even thinking that I’d been stupid to ask. The fact is, however, that every day that we read outside of our homes, we consciously display our reading material to others in a deliberate way. It’s not that my friend was unwilling to admit to reading 50 Shades of Grey, but I can only assume that what stopped her from reading it in public was the horrifying idea that a passing observer might assume that that book represented her ultimate reading preferences, rendering the shelf full of Dickens she had at home null and void.
On principle, this literary fraud is a terrible thing to happen and yet, at the same time, it is understandable. It is also not limited to erotic fiction. Take Harry Potter, for instance. Every standard release has been accompanied by a more ‘grown up’ edition that sports a ‘mature’ kind of cover (see below the darker colour scheme and antique-looking prop). Men and women in dark suits read these tastefully clad volumes on the way to work. More often that not, oddly enough, these books end up matching their outfits.
I have two issues with this: firstly, why does the concept of ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ so often translate into the colours black, white and grey?
And secondly, why have books been dragged into our constant concerns regarding what people think of us?
The first is frustrating for reasons that I shan’t get into for fear of veering off topic (in the meantime I’ll just fume privately over the fact that sparkly converse are apparently no longer ‘age-appropriate’). The second is a little more worrying to address, not least because I am guilty of it myself.
Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what other people think of the books you’re reading. And yet, despite the fact that by the end of the year of its release 50 Shades of Grey had sold between 65 and 70 million copies (more than one copy for every member of the British population), to this day I have not seen one person reading it. Although this is an extreme example, given its erotic content, I feel certain that there are many book lovers guilty of the same thing in some form or another.
All of this stems from the very real judgement that we both exercise and fall victim to on a daily basis. Before writing this, I’m sure that I would have made the same quick assumption that my friend from the train was worried about: ‘…that person is reading that kind of book; that must be the kind of thing they read and that makes them this kind of person…’ etc.
We should all think twice about such assumptions. You can learn a lot about a person from their taste in books, but the best reader, in my opinion, is one that tries everything. Quite apart from that, there are plenty of reasons for a person to be reading a book and not all of these indicate an unwavering preference. A woman’s daughter may have recommended it, for example, or maybe the book was chosen by somebody else for that month’s book club. Maybe it was lying around and they picked it up randomly for a way to pass the time.
Just maybe, nobody feels this way and I’m plucking this self-conscious out of thin air. Perhaps there are a whole host of readers who proudly read 50 Shades of Grey on the train and I simply haven’t seen them. And if it is the case that nobody agrees with me, then I’d better pull myself together and buy myself those sparkly converse.