Friday, April 18, 2008

I Need To Know What You're Reading

It's summer in Toronto and I'm in the car with my grandfather. We're driving through the city, or we're stopped at a red light. Some teenaged girls in knee-socks and vulva-length skirts are twirling down the sidewalk. His head turns. He takes a look. I bite my lip.

That’s the way it’s always been. But I’ve noticed, recently, that I’m doing something similar. If I’m on the subway and someone’s reading a book, I look. I can’t help myself. I glance out of the corner of my eye. What the hell are they reading.

A few days ago I was out with a friend for lunch and a twenty-something bald guy with an Al Jolson t-shirt was walking toward us. He was carrying a thick hardcover book with the spine tucked into his waist, and I was trying to get a glimpse of what the thing was. I figured a skinny, twenty-something bald guy with an Al Jolson shirt and a shoulder bag had to be reading something really esoteric and interesting. For some reason I was determined to know what the book was. My friend saw what I was doing, but couldn’t figure it out. To him it looked like I was staring at this guy’s skinny-jeaned crotch. But I was looking at the book.

This is somehow very Freudian. Depending on your gender, a book makes a frightening comparison to genitalia. But I have seen people spanked with them. And a guy I knew once chipped a tooth on one.

Not that I’m embarrassed. I’ve looked down plenty of camisoles on the subway trying to glimpse the chapter title of whatever the woman was reading. I wasn’t looking for skin; I just wanted to know if it was Grisham, Kinsella, or Dreiser. (Note: It was never--not ever--Dreiser.) I’m a heterosexual man caught up in the weird universe of book-loving pedagogues and autodidacts. Books don’t give me pleasure; but once a professor gave me a copy of Reading Canadian Reading…and the pages were stuck together.

Even magazines do it for me. I was walking down a beach and there was a nude woman-- a beautiful nude woman in her twenties--reading a Cosmo. You know what I wanted to ask her? "What page are you on?" Vogue's good, too.

If it’s an attractive woman holding a book, here’s the progression: book, ass, tits, face. I know that’s pathetic, but the book has assumed such awful meaning for me. Maybe it’s the fact that, as I sit here, there is, at my feet, a paper bag (that once contained a dozen poppy-seed bagels) now contains Frances Newman’s Hardboiled Virgin, Cynthia Sugars’s Home-Work, and Margaret Atwood’s Essays. (Note: I just tore the bag trying to look inside.)

[Sigh.] I’m going to the library.

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