Secret Reading

The other night a friend mentioned in an email that she considered her brother a “secret reader”—someone who seems like a nonreader but turns out not to be; someone who has read the book under discussion but doesn’t say anything about it, tacitly pretending to be out of the loop; someone who is (at least a little bit) hiding what they know. She sent me a quotation from Charlotte Mosley’s The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters:

Accused by Nancy of illiteracy, she was suspected by her family and friends of being a secret reader. Diana believed that unlike most people who pretend to have read books that they have not, Deborah pretended not to have read books that she had.

The idea interested me because I have definitely been the same kind of secret reader from time to time.

It’s funny to say that because anyone who actually knows me knows very well that I’m a reader: they’ve seen me with books in my purse, they know that I read enough book reviews to have heard of everything on display at the store, and if they’ve been to my apartment any doubt is erased. But people who only know me a little might not know I read at all, because with most people I just tend not to talk about it. First, since an awful lot of people are themselves nonreaders it wouldn’t be very interesting; but more importantly I’ve always had a certain shyness about that sort of thing. When people do come over, I don’t like them to do the bookshelf browsing thing, it seems so invasive. And yet here I am on the internets talking about books for all to see.

I definitely have soft spot for secret readers, and anyone who feels like they have to hide what they’re interested in or excited about. Definitely softer than any spot I have for the more typical pretend readers.

5 comments to Secret Reading

  • That’s an interesting thing to learn about you. I have a few friends who are secret readers, and a few that you’d expect to be readers but actually aren’t. I’m never shy about reading, and I love bookshelf browsing in other people’s homes, so I think I have to allow them to do it in my house. When I overhear customers talking about a book I’ve read, I can’t help but chime in, and though I rarely strike up conversations with strangers, I’ve been known to look at what the person next to me in the airport or on the plane is reading and ask them about it (or share my thoughts if I’ve read it)….but only if they’re not currently engaged in the act of reading. I’d hate to interrupt :)

  • I used to be even more crazy about it than I am now. If you come to my house and browse my shelves I will no longer freak out, but I used to keep all the books in my bedroom and only let people into the living room and other common areas—and get really upset if they invaded my privacy! I don’t really know why.

    I’ve always wanted to work at a bookstore so I could talk about books at work like that, but I’ve tended to find myself in jobs where I seem like the only reader around. But they could all be secret of course.

  • Dr. Johnson was a nosy book browser – that was the first thing he would do when out visiting. He would not just look – he would pull down books and start to read. A little rude! But he was indulged, for obvious reasons.

    For Johnson, though, the context is a little different. He was not judging the personality or intelligence of the owner – the source of your discomfort, I would guess – but actually looking for books he had read about but never seen himself.

  • verbivore

    I try not to mention how much I read unless I’m absolutely sure the other person is also a big reader. This could be a Swiss thing I’ve picked up from living here, where people are very modest about certain things – intellectual pursuits being a definite low-profile activity if you don’t want to be labeled a snob.
    But I am a horrible bookshelf browser at other people’s houses, I think I’m being discreet and then my husband will nudge me and give me one of “those” looks :-)

  • AR: I like the point about Dr. Johnson—you guess correctly the source of my discomfort, but why do I ascribe those motives to people looking at my books when I know I would be checking out shelves for Johnson’s reasons instead.

    verbivore: Yes, not that I am Swiss or anything but in general “intellectual pursuits being a definite low-profile activity” has been a part of, I guess, how I grew up. Sticks with you.