What’s Your Vanity Read?

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 BooksNYRB 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.

Your intrepid blogger researching this post.

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!



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20 responses to “What’s Your Vanity Read?

  1. I like your post. I am new to blogging. Hope we can be friends. Keep it up!

  2. Just yesterday hubby and I were sitting in a cafe, him with his laptop and me with my book. It was Julia Quinn, an adorable, soppy romance and I was trying my best to screen it from prying (only in my mind) eyes and cursing myself for not having picked up one of the sophisticated classics or short stories of Kafka or maybe something spiritual like the autobiography of a yogi to read in such a public place :).

  3. No vanity reads for me any more. At a different stage in my life, definitely yes, though, ha! I even had a vanity library at home. But in the past two or three years, I’ve donated away most of my books, over a thousand of them (many to the Carnegie Library!), in the name of minimalism and anti-vanity.

    • I love it, a vanity library! I think borrowing books from the library is the ultimate in minimalism, something that I believe Maria touched on in an earlier post.

      Oh, and thanks for the donations!

  4. Holly A.

    Great post Dan! When I was in college I read a lot of lit theorists in public places. I lugged around titles by Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault (how trite!), and Baudrillard. I believe it was years of being a teen librarian that cured me of vanity reading and I am better for it!

  5. From time to time, I have vanity reads that make me feel better about myself as a reader…and a writer. My most recent ” look what I’m reading” book was by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t really care what the non-readers see me reading. It’s the avid readers I try to impress, from time to time…

  6. Beth

    If you live in New York, you have to be really careful. Have you seen this blog: http://undergroundnewyorkpubliclibrary.com/? They take pictures of people in NYC reading in the subway system. I look at it every day and am fascinated!

    • I just added that to my reader. Thanks for the suggestion! I love the looks on their faces…

      • I have seen that site too and for a moment I was sure they were staged!!! everybody seemed to have all those extremely complex novella’s and not one person with an Archie / M&B’s/ fantasy novels/ crime fiction. It can’t be true!! I feel so shallow everytime I see that site and yet I can’t stop myself :(

  7. lectorconstans

    I usually try to put a copy of Mad Magazine over the Henry James novel I’m reading when I’m out.

  8. I don’t think I have ever chosen a book simply to look good in public, but I can admit that some of my lighter choices have intentionally remained “at home” reading only. That’s probably the same idea. On a related note, I recently heard someone argue that the reason something like 50 Shades of Grey can be successful is because of the freedom people now have to read whatever they want on their e-readers while no one is the wiser. Just to be clear, though, I still haven’t read it. Not even in the privacy of my own home.

    • Very interesting point — nobody can tell what you’re reading on a Kindle.

      I guess I always assume people who have eBook readers must be avid readers, which earns them some credibility in my (sorry) book. Why else spring for a dedicated gadget?

  9. victoria

    An interesting blog post/discussion along the same lines: http://throwingthings.blogspot.com/2012/02/you-should-probably-leave-your-copy-of.html — enjoy!

  10. Pingback: Guilty Pleasures? « Emporia State University-SCALA Blog

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  12. While not a specific vanity read I do have a Nook cover with a picture window which I use to display the cover of the book I’m reading. I missed the days of people being able to look at the cover of books while passing by and sometimes commenting.

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