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Books Too Embarrassing To Read In Public

May 17, 2014
There's a book I'd never read in public, and I'm not going to put its image where somebody I know could associate the book with me. (image via Wikimedia)

There’s a book I’d never read in public, and I’m not going to put its image where somebody I know could associate the book with me. (image via Wikimedia)

This week I got lectured at by a co-worker for reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in public. It’s a long story, and I’ll tell it soon, but I’m embarrassed by something I did (it had nothing to do with reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in public). But being criticized about it made me think about the books that I don’t want to be seen reading.

When I was in junior high, I had a copy of Massage Parlor II by Jennifer Sills. I probably shouldn’t have had it, but I did, and I read it during study hall in school. No teacher ever took it away from me. Study hall teachers seemed to only care if students talked, so if I didn’t talk, I got left alone, and they never noticed that I was reading a book I shouldn’t have had. When I was done (I think I read it several times), I loaned out my copy to my friends who read it during study hall (and maybe took it home, but I don’t think about that anymore). The point is that I’d never read a book like that in public anymore. I wouldn’t read a Fifty Shades of Grey type of book. It would be embarrassing. I wouldn’t do it.

I don’t read political books in public anymore because people argue too much and get too angry too quickly. I don’t want anybody who disagrees with me seeing me reading a political book and then starting an argument with me in public. Arguing about politics in public is more humiliating than reading a sex book in public. And I really don’t want somebody who agrees with me to start a conversation either. I’m usually more embarrassed by the people who agree with me because when they say something stupid, I feel like I’m associated with them.

I’m not suggesting that I’m more enlightened about politics than everyone else. I’m just as likely to say something stupid as anybody else who talks politics, and that’s why I don’t want to talk politics (or read about politics) in public.

If I have to go to jury duty, I might pretend to read a book about politics. I have an Ann Coulter book jacket that I slip onto the novel that I’m reading whenever I get called to jury duty.   If I hold up the book jacket while the lawyers are looking over the jury pool, I’m always sent home quickly.

I’m not really trying to get out of jury duty. I’d gladly serve, but I’ve learned that where I live, people in my demographic group don’t get selected, so if I’m not going to get selected, I might as well not get selected quickly than stick around all day to not get selected. Before Ann Coulter, I’d stick around all day and then not get selected. With Ann Coulter, I’m home before lunch.

I usually don’t care if people see what novels I’m reading, but there’s one book that I wouldn’t be caught dead with. That’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m a middle-aged bald guy with two daughters who have their friends over all the time. The last thing I need is to be seen reading Lolita.

Other than being a middle-aged guy, I’m not like Humbert Humbert in any way (except I might be an unreliable narrator sometimes, but not about this).  I’m not obsessed with anything or anybody that I shouldn’t be obsessed with.  It’s just that I don’t want people to think that I’m obsessed with things I’m not obsessed about.  So I’m not going to be seen with that book.

I don’t want to be associated in any way with Lolita. I’m not reading that book. I’m not going ever let that book in my house. I won’t even put it on my phone. If I get called to jury duty, I will not take it with me, even with an Ann Coulter jacket on it. I won’t even take an Ann Coulter book with a Lolita jacket on it. I would be embarrassed to be seen reading Lolita in public or in my house.

People already assume I’m a bit strange because I’m quiet. I don’t need the reputation of being the quiet guy who reads Lolita while a bunch of teen girls are running around my house. If I ever take my daughters to a house and the parent is a quiet guy reading Lolita, I’ll politely take my daughters back home with me.

I’m sure Lolita has some literary value, but somebody else can explain it.


What books are you too embarrassed to read in public? What book jacket would you take to get out of jury duty?


Even if you are embarrassed to read my book The Writing Prompt in public, it’ll be on your phone, or tablet, or Kindle, so nobody else will know.

Now available on Amazon!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

  1. The only books I’m embarrassed to read in public are those with ludicrous covers. If the cover is presentable, I have no problem with taking a book out in public.

    • If there’s gratuitous cleavage on the cover, then I can’t be seen in public with that book in public. I don’t think the cleavage covers would help me out with jury duty either. It would probably depend on the case.

      • Haha. I wouldn’t have a problem with cleavage. I have problems with this , I do admit to people that I read these things. I say it out loud (although not very proud). But I still read those books in the privacy of my home. Shit, that sounds a bit wrong and … well, no helping it

  2. Hmmm . . . to be honest, if I wouldn’t want someone to see me read it, I probably wouldn’t read it anyway. I’m pretty open about myself.

  3. Funny post. I remember reading “Lolita” myself and being worried that someone might see it and think I was a sicko–and I’m a woman!

  4. silverliningsanddustbunnies permalink

    Jennifer’s comment made a think a bit, so I thought I would add my 2 cents to the discussion.

    I hear you Jen, and if I had oodles of time to spend talking about what I chose to be reading, I would agree.

    But I want to use my time to READ the book I choose. Through my long years I have learned (the hard way) not to open myself up to JUST ANYBODY’s opinion. Life is way too short and precious to invite long diatribes from people I don’t know, all because something I care to be reading incites them.

    That said, the books I don’t like to read in public are, in league with our distinguished blogger, mainly political in nature.

    Pretty much anything else goes.

  5. The fact that you even CARE makes me question your self appointed tag as a “reader.”

  6. Anonymous permalink

    It has never occurred to me to worry about people seeing what I am reading. I suppose most of my reading is done at home, but even if I’m reading on a bus or a train or while waiting at the doctor’s surgery I’d never expect those around me to comment on what I chose to read, even if they could see it. With a Kindle or other e-reader of course you can’t see what someone else is reading,
    This post is surely pure fiction – entertaining but fictitious.

    • The way I see it, people get judged by what they read. Lawyers judge me by the Ann Coulter book they think I’m reading. I judge others by the quality of novels that they read (maybe I’m too judgmental). Like you said, having a phone and a Kindle helps, but this is still an issue for me (though maybe a slightly overstated one).

  7. I am very careful not to let anyone see what book I’m reading in public. It doesn’t matter what the book is. If it’s a thoughtful, literary book, I don’t want people thinking I’m showing off. If it’s crap, I don’t want people thinking I read crap. But no matter what the book is, I don’t want someone engaging me in conversation about it. One of the reasons I read books in public is because I’m an introvert and I’d rather read a book than talk to someone I don’t already know. The additional benefit is that if I happen to glance up and see someone I know, I can quickly look back down at my book and hope they don’t see me. That way I can avoid a stop’n chat with someone I do know, but don’t necessarily wish to talk to right then and there. This doesn’t always work, but it does help.

    • Ha ha! I actually laughed out loud because this sounds very much like me, especially the part about looking down at the book so that maybe I won’t get seen or if I do get seen they won’t interrupt me because I’m (pretending to be) so engrossed with my book.

    • Amen! Why do people feel led to talk to people reading books? That’s why we have blogs

  8. This was an interesting post. I always enjoy engaging pretty much anyone in a conversation/argument about literature. I can’t imagine anything much more interesting to talk about and I’m always interested in the opinions of others. Especially if they are contrary to mine. I often read books, and watch movies and television, and read articles, that express an opnion or position that is not mine. For me, it’s the only way I can develop an informed opinion. If I’m going to tell someone why they are wrong I better have all my ducks in a row.

    • Literature discussions can be interesting, and people usually don’t get so angry so quickly (as they do with politics), unless you call somebody’s favorite author a “hack.” I called Stephen King a hack once in a writer’s group, and some guy started insulting me, and things escalated. Nothing physical happened, but everybody else in our writer’s group was embarrassed by our behavior.

  9. mkharlan permalink

    I’ll read pretty much anything in public… Having something like a nook or kindle helps because no one can see what I’m actually reading, but I was reading my Psych book in my study hall and we were on the psychology of sex chapter… dear God I thought everyone was watching me and judging me as I read all the details and took notes on the stuff that AP Psych seems to think teenagers need to know… learned things I wasn’t ready to know about my peers yet… *shudder*

  10. In high school I remember reading the novelisation of the movie “Porky’s 2 – The Next Day” that I bought at a library sale… that was probably a bit embarrassing to be seen walking around with although it didn’t seem to bother me at the time.

    • I didn’t even know there was a Porky’s 2-The Next Day novelization. Which would have worse to carry around, Massage Parlor II or Porky’s 2?

      To make it worse, both of us were reading sequels!!!!

      • Yeah right, they’re both sequels… didn’t realise that must mean people are thinking we read the first one too.

        Hate to say it but Massage Parlor II is worse… the Porky’s one is almost only bad just because of that fact that it’s such a goofy novelisation but the movies were still pretty successful. Massage Parlour II sounds like legit generic porn or at least something on Cinemax.

        Either way, no one was looking at us like we were walking around with Infinite Jest under our arms, that’s for sure.

  11. I don’t really care what strangers see me reading (though I generally keep my personal library tasteful.) I am cautious about what people I know see me reading. Because then they might pick it up, and if there was something questionable in there I hadn’t known about at first, it would be awkward. Like, I’m not super paranoid about that, but it’s the only occasion I’d really care if people know I read that.

    • If you’re reading something controversial that you don’t want others (people you know) to see, try replacing the book jacket with something everybody loves, like To Kill a Mockingbird. Everybody respects To Kill a Mockingbird. They don’t have to know what’s really underneath the jacket.

  12. I think Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are two I wouldn’t read in public, although I wouldn’t read a lot of trashy romances at all. Besides that, I don’t care what they think of what I read.

    • I don’t know much about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

      All of this reflecting made me remember that in college I had to read a Harlequin romance for a modern literature class (or something like that). I read it in my dorm room, but then my roommate gave me a bunch of weird looks. I told him it was for class, and he kept saying, “Yeah, sure.”

  13. People are idiots. But until they’re not, there’s Kindles.

  14. I wouldn’t want to be seen reading 50 Shades of Grey in public, not because of its subject matter, but because it’s so badly written. Other than that I’ll read anything in public.

    • That’s true. I know several people who’ve read 50 Shades (and admitted it) but wouldn’t read it in public. But I’m thinking that you probably wouldn’t have read it in private either.

      • I read the first 14 chapters and gave up because the bad grammar, poor word choice and repetition drove me to distraction actually.

  15. Veronica permalink

    The beauty of a Kindle… nobody will ever know what book I’m reading. Though I can’t say I’ve ever been embarrassed to read a book in public.
    Side note: I always pictured you with hair, lol. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s because I’m thinking of 90’s Jimmy Norman from “The Literary Girlfriend.”

    • You’re right, I had decent hair (if I took care of it) 20 years ago during The Literary Girlfriend time period. But… sigh… those days are long gone.

  16. I always think twice about reading a self-help book in public. Not that I read a lot of them, but I have a couple with attention-grabbing titles, like “Female Brain Gone Insane” (it’s about the impact of hormones.) Otherwise I agree with one of the readers above, that in general I don’t really want people to see what I am reading, even though I generally don’t read anything embarrassing. I really do just want to keep to myself when in public and not have anyone notice me.

    • I forgot about self-help books! You’re right! I don’t want anybody to think that there’s anything wrong with me, and if there is something wrong with me, I don’t want to advertise it with the self-help book that I’m reading. I don’t even like browsing in the self-help section of the book store.

  17. I read Shakespeare as a teenager but would never admit it or be caught reading it. Pretended i was cool. Now it’s Fifty Shades. A mother reading it – people will think I want a spanking! 😀

  18. I’ve read lots of sex books in public!! But this is one reason for ereaders.

  19. newyorkvagal permalink

    I pretty much read whatever I want in public or private. Many times it strikes up a conversation, for example, on an airplane. Even read 50 shades on a plane , and 3 flight attendants stopped at my seat to discuss. I read mostly murder mysteries ,so I wonder to myself if that says something about me! I don’t want to think about it

  20. I read whatever I like, when I like. But that’s probably because I don’t care what what people who see me think of me. What do I care? I never have to see a random stranger again. My friends and family etc don’t judge me for my reading habits, and anyone who does, isn’t the sort of person who’s opinion I would rate. But then I’m not a parent either. It almost seemed like you worry too much about what strangers think of you, but the jury duty story contradicts that. I think in reality it’s not what they THINK that bothers you, it’s what they might DO because of it. You accept yourself that you would make presumptions about people based on what they read, and that you would act on it (eg take your daughter away from a quiet man reading Lolita.) you know you could read it and not be some sort of creep, but you wouldn’t risk being wrong if it was someone else around your daughter. You expect that behaviour from others because it’s what you would do. In a way, maybe you are trying to avoid being judged, the way you judge others.

  21. I am generally reading some obscure 19th century novel when I’m in public. I use a Kindle and every once in a while someone asks what I am reading. For some reason I am always more embarrassed than they are that they don’t know what I’m talking about.

  22. ardyey permalink

    No matter what book you like to read, the value of reading should be appreciated; either you do it in public or in private. I think we all just have to respect our individual choices.

  23. I’ve always wanted someone to ask me about a book I’m reading in public. No one ever has. They’re usually too busy staring at their phones with their mouths hanging open.

  24. bnphlptt permalink

    I can never quite get over my own sense of shame at reading the Harry Potter novels in public. I feel like people are judging me quietly. Also, The God Delusion. People just put you in a box then. Or worse, they try to talk to you about it.

  25. Ha ha! a very funny post. I read Lolita when I was a teenager in the 1950s I think, when I read all my best books. But then the book was all the rage and being sold unashamedly in railway station book shops. Times change. Lady Chatterly was the book then which was so horrifyingly naughty. I remember my father reading it and handing it to me, a little disappointed that it was not as juicy as he thought it was. Each era brings its own censorship. In the early 70s in the Vincennes university in Paris on the inside of doors in the male toilets you saw large pornographic pictures torn from magazines along with long political tracts written with marker pens. Those were the two banned and provocative elements of the era.
    To answer your question, no I would not read Lolita, even in private, now that I have eaten the apple from the tree of knowledge.

  26. derekberry permalink

    Reblogged this on Word Salad.

  27. Fifty anything at this point – Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, et. al.

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