Reading In Public
Like most Cemetery Dance readers, I am sure, I rarely leave the house without a book in hand. Sometimes I leave a deluxe edition home and have a travel book to take with me. I guess it is similar to how some people feel about carrying a gun. Better to have a book and not need it, than need one and not have it.
How many times have you experienced unexpected downtime and wished you had a book? Too many for me in my younger years. Now I know that precious reading time can occur at any moment. Best to be prepared.
It carries a stigma in the real world. Where you are considered to be completely normal staring, slack-jawed, into a plastic communicative device, and probably pressing thumbs or fingers into it as you transmit crucial messages to important recipients, reading a book is often considered to be a dirty act.
People sometimes feel the need to save you from a fate worse than death. Who wouldn’t, in their misguided reasoning, prefer to hear their even-handed political opinions, or simply to pass the time with banal conversation? Anything is preferable to reading a book, right?
I remember one occasion. I was barely past my twentieth year, and I was minding my own in a diner. Eating my heart attack special, enjoying a book. The book in question was Bill Pronzini’s Undercurrent. There I was, my day off, and enjoying myself. An old guy near me broke my contentment by asking, “Is that book about a submarine?” Perturbed, I replied in the negative. “My son works on a submarine! See…”.
Sigh. I felt sorry for the old duck. He was undoubtedly lonely and wanted to talk. In a way I don’t mind that sort of thing sometime, but, damn it, I was enjoying the book.
It has happened to me a lot. I have attempted to read in my yard on various balmy days. Seated in a chair, on the property I pay taxes on, and uninvited intruders ruin it.
Even worse, many illiterate individuals feel that reading is something worthy of ridicule. What kind of weak sister spends his time reading a book? When he doesn’t even have to?
I remember well the very first book I ever read. A real, genuine novel, I mean. I was obsessed with books and storytelling as far back as I can remember. I suppose I was around twelve years old, and I proudly carried my copy of Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel to school. Lord, did I love that book. Still do, in fact. For me, Have Space Suit-Will Travel pokes fun at corny SF cliches even while it revels in them. I was mercilessly tormented for carrying that book. Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It sounds lower than a Buck Rogers or Tom Swift story. I knew that it was a great book, and many of you know it too.
This was long, long before Geek Chic. Before everyone was a superhero fan, and dorks ’round the world celebrated storm troopers, Jedi Warriors, and death stars. Star Trek fandom was just gaining momentum, and trust me, it was not cool to be a ravenous fan.
Did I care? Sure I did, to a degree. But not enough to stop me from carrying the next Heinlein book I read to school. Which was even worse. The next one was called Space Cadet.
It was a valuable lesson that I never forgot. Many people in this world despise readers. And many more have contempt for those who love genre fiction.
It never really stopped me. I carry a book everywhere I go. To doctor’s office visits, for one. why not? They damned sure make you wait long enough. I carry a book to movie theaters when I go alone. That’s not as good as it used to be. I miss the days when soft music and slides ran before the coming attractions began. Now the greedy bastards are aware that every second we are a captive audience is lucrative advertising time. I find it difficult to concentrate on a book while soul-deadening adverts bombard me.
Carrying a horror book, with a typically garish cover, often carries a greater stigma than science fiction. In the early 80’s, when I was just beginning to jump the fence from SF fanatic to full-blown horror freak, I would carry my books to work. A worker looked at me with contempt on one occasion, and harshly asked if I “read that shit”. I wasted my time by replying that Charles L. Grant’s Nightmare Seasons was not shit. I’m sure you know the type of person. A judgmental prick who never lets ignorance get in the way of his arrogance.
I’m more careful at work these day. I have to deal with these people every day. I have always made my living in the industrial world. You’ll find very few readers in that environment. Readers of fiction, anyway. Plenty of gearheads, hunters, fishermen, sports fans, but not a lot of readers. Far too many of them see it as something less than manly. I do my reading in my car at lunch, and before work. Sure, I have the reputation of being standoffish, but when did readers not have that hanging over their heads?
Other times, when I am out and about, I carry my book with pride. I do a lot of weekend hiking, and I always hold it with the title plain to see. I keep hoping that a beautiful woman will recognize the book, and exclaim, “Oh, the new Ed Gorman! I LOVE his writing! Why don’t we go get some lunch and discuss his work for hours!”
So far, no luck in that regard.
I always keep my eye out for kindred souls. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, when I saw someone sitting at a bench or a chair, focusing on something in his or her lap, it was almost always a book. I always made the effort to see what it was. Now it is almost always a smart phone. Unfortunately I cannot act too superior. I have one, and you will see me, zombielike, staring into its recesses. I hate it, but I am addicted, too. Thankfully not as badly as most others are.
Whenever I am in a bookstore, the book area of a thrift store, a library, or any other place where people browse through books, I am pretty nosy. I try to scope out what people are looking at. Sometimes I speak up, and say things like, “That’s a really good book.” I usually get a polite, but chilly and curt reply. In the modern age we distrust others. Unless we meet them online, and then we confess every hope and fear we’ve ever had to them.
I suppose it is different with a Kindle or other electronic reading device. You look like just another techie with one of those. Just another way to be anonymous in an increasingly dehumanizing society. For better or worse digital publishing has become a necessity. Hence this column in a digital publication.
Me, I am a book person. I’m too hard on devices. My cell phone looks like I’ve played air hockey with it, and I leave my best books at home and carry old paperbacks and library books with me when I venture out into the world.
I cherish my intimate relationship with books, and I consider myself to be part of a dying tribe. Anything but a casual reader, but a bibliophile passionately in love with reading and the act of having a book with me. Books are my constant companions. My friends and my oracles. I will love them until the day I die.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.