I often walk through the Main Library’s First Floor on my way to my office. Usually, I try to keep my eyes straight ahead, lest I add yet another volume to the huge pile of books to read next to my bed. But there are a few things that always have me reaching for my library card no matter how high the pile is.
At the top of this list is the New York Review of Books “NYRB Classics” releases. This series, which is made up of great but generally non-canonical works, are well-chosen and almost always interesting to read. And, like any great product, they have a distinctive look that jumps off the shelf. I would describe it as an updated version of the old Oxford Classics “let’s stick a pretty painting on the cover of a classic” motif. But whatever, I think that they’re really classy looking books.
That last point — about the appearance of the books — might seem like a superficial thing to notice. After all, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers. But you know what? I have a literary confession to make. I read in public a lot, on my lunch break, the bus, at the park. And I can be, as I suspect many of you out there can be too, a vain reader.
Come on, don’t you ever think just a little bit about what book you’re going to bring to lunch? I mean, not all the time, of course. There are plenty of books that are good enough that I don’t care what anybody else thinks. But all things being equal, I will admit that I can occasionally succumb to the narcissistic notion that somebody might actually pay attention to the book I’m holding, and that somehow their assessment of my reading material will in some way benefit me. What can I say? Sometimes, I’m reading for an imaginary audience.
I guess it all started when I was a kid. Sure, Disney adaptations of classic stories were all the rage, but me? I wouldn’t recognize any Pooh other than Milne’s, thank you very much. (I still feel that way about Pooh, frankly.) Peter Pan? Sure, as long as it’s a Penguin Classics edition. I’m sure my school bus driver was very impressed.
And in the middle school cafeteria, a kid sitting alone reading Matt Christopher or R.L. Stine might have looked lonely. But with a copy of Siddhartha, well now I just looked mysterious.
I hit the big major conspicuous reading milestones right on time, too: On the Road during down time at marching band practice, Walden at lunch breaks during my summer landscaping job during college. I’m sure that there were many times during grad school where I had to pull out the giant Gravity’s Rainbow that I carried around for two years out of my bag to get to the papers I needed for class.
Lately, I’ve been seen (at least I hope I have!) reading William James, David Foster Wallace, and Lydia Davis. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity that I have to at least enjoy the books that I’m conspicuously reading.
That said, I’ll probably never reform my vanity reading habit. In fact, I fully intend to read Proust in the common area of whatever senior center I frequent once I retire. Or at least nap behind an open volume of Remembrance of Things Past…
So, anyone else want to admit to vanity reading? I know you’re out there! Post your vanity reads in the comments section. This blog has a lot of readers, and they’ll all know what a savvy literati you are!