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The Worst Place To Read A Book

August 19, 2014
At least I hope that guy is just reading. (image via Wikimedia)

At least I hope this guy is just reading. (image via Wikimedia)

Reading at a funeral is a bad idea. I usually don’t like reading in public anyway (usually for safety reasons), but a funeral is an especially bad place to read. In my defense, I was reading a good book (it had been a while since I’d read a book I was excited about), and I wanted to know what was going to happen next.  I don’t want to mention the title of this book because a lot of people hate this book and would think I was a horrible human being for wanting to read it at a funeral. I had it on my phone, so nobody would have known I was reading a book instead of checking messages, but I still would have looked like a phone tool at a funeral, and I didn’t want that either.

This doesn’t make me look good. I think I have some explaining to do.

A co-worker of mine died last week. I’m not going to mention the co-worker’s name because I don’t mention the real names of people I know. I was at his funeral, the service was over, and everybody had lined up in the center aisle of the church to exit, but first we had to pass the co-worker’s wife and kids. The line was moving slowly, and I don’t talk to people in lines unless I know them well. A bunch of people from work were there, but I had talked to them before the service, so I had already used up all the appropriate funeral topics (weather and what a great guy the co-worker was). I had nothing left.

Sine the line was slow, I was going to read a little bit on my phone when I realized that everybody in line was stopping to talk to our deceased co-worker’s wife. Nobody slipped past the side to avoid her. If I did that, I’d be the only one, and I would have looked like the supreme tool. Everybody would have remembered me as the guy who slipped away from the co-worker’s grieving wife.  I was going to have to say something to her. I’d never met her. I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t know what to say to her.

Despite being a writer, I’m not always good with words. It takes a long time for me to think of the right things to say (or write). I put the phone away and began thinking furiously.

Last summer I got into a minor argument with this co-worker. There was a week when one famous actor, one famous singer, and one famous author (Tom Clancy) all died within a couple days. Since celebrity deaths seem to happen in threes, I tried to make the case to others in the office that Tom Clancy was just as famous as the famous singer and famous actor who had died. I don’t remember who the actor and singer were. That’s the kind of guy I am. I remember the author’s name, and that’s it.

“Writers don’t count,” my co-worker (the one who died last week) proclaimed.

“But this author wrote a bunch of books,” I said, and listed several titles that had been turned into popular movies.

“I don’t know what he looks like,” my co-worker said. “You’re not a celebrity if nobody knows what you look like.”

I knew what this author looked like because he put the same picture on the back of his books for 20 years. Then again, his features might have changed after 20 years, so maybe I really didn’t know what he looked like. But I thought that was a stupid criteria for a celebrity.

Despite that disagreement a year ago, I went to my co-worker’s funeral. I don’t hold grudges about little things like that. (Just so you know, it wasn’t a Tom Clancy book that I wanted to read at the funeral). As I stood in line, I still wasn’t sure what to say to the co-worker’s wife. “I’m sorry for your loss,” seemed overdone. “I’m sorry,” seemed too short. I cursed my slow wittedness in uncomfortable moments, but thankfully I had time to think about other experiences with her husband.  I didn’t think the argument about the whether or not a dead author counted as a dead celebrity would be appropriate. Maybe there was something else I could tell her.

Over the last year, I did a lot of work for the deceased co-worker. He would show up to my office (it’s not really an office, but the layout is tough to explain and isn’t important) and declare that he didn’t know how to do something technical, and then once I started showing him the steps, he’d excuse himself and disappear for a few hours. I (or a couple other guys) would just finish whatever it was and move on. It was easier that way. Once when I was completing a project, the co-worker stepped in and said to me, “You know, when you’re on your death bed breathing through a tube, you’re not going to give a f*** about all this.”

I don’t remember if that’s exactly what he said, but I’m sure I got the profanity part right. I really didn’t want to mention this to his wife either.

Another time last summer when we’d been talking about death (I promise, we don’t sit around talking about death at work, though maybe some people there think about it a lot), the co-worker had said “I don’t care about dying. The world was just fine without me for a billion years.” I was tempted to say “4 billion years,” but I’ve been toning down that part of my personality.

Even though the funeral line was long and ponderous, I got to the front before I was emotionally ready. I didn’t have anything comforting or substantive to say to the co-worker’s wife, so I did the best I could.

“I’m Jimmy,” I stammered to the co-worker’s wife. “I worked with ______________ several times this year. He’s a great guy, and we’re going to miss him.” I think I said something like that. When I was talking to my co-worker’s wife, I wasn’t sure if I should refer to the co-worker in the present or past tense, so I went with present tense. Maybe I should have looked up the etiquette on my phone.

I could tell from the wife’s reaction that she had never heard of me. That’s okay. A lot of people where I work don’t know who I am, so I can’t expect a co-worker’s significant other to know. If I had died (and I hope I’m not jinxing myself by writing this) and my co-worker had introduced himself to my wife, she wouldn’t have known who he was either, at least not by his name. If he had introduced himself to my wife as “the leach,” then she would have known.

I wonder if my co-worker knew or suspected what was about to happen to him. Maybe he asked me for help because he couldn’t concentrate on his work anymore and he didn’t want to admit it. Maybe he just didn’t care about work. Maybe shoving his stuff on other people was the easiest thing to do. Maybe being a leech was just the way he was. I’ll never know. I have a guess, but I’ll never know for sure. I thought about it a little bit in my car as I waited for the air conditioner to kick in. I ended up not reading my book at all until I returned home. Even then, I couldn’t concentrate on it for a while.


I don’t know.  Is there a worse place to read a book than a funeral?  Do famous writers count as celebrities?  What topics are safe to talk about with strangers in a line?

  1. booksforfun1 permalink

    I’m with you on writer’s being celebrities, but maybe only people that like to read would think that. I can’t think of a worse place to read a book than a funeral. I’m a fairly quiet person, so I don’t usually talk to people in a line unless they talk to me. Really enjoyed your post. 🙂

    • I agree; people who don’t read books might not see a famous author as a celebrity, but that’s their fault for not reading enough (or any) books.

  2. Lorraine permalink

    I have never read at a viewing, or a funeral even though I’m a VERY avid reader. I talk to the folks around me if I know them, or maybe I don’t if I’m in an unsociable, introverted mood. I do enjoy gawking at the wonderful photo collages of the deceased’s life though, as I walk past in the line, which is something folks do in my neck of the woods.. Now THAT’S something to comment on.

    • We had talked about the photo collage before the service (when we had discussed what a great guy the co-worker was). The high school graduation picture (with early 1980s hair) was very comment-worthy, but we didn’t want to get carried away with our remarks because we were… you know… at his funeral.

  3. Well, that is not a good place to read a book, I’m afraid. Or check your phone. Or pretend to check your phone while you are actually reading a book. If you need a break from things, it would be better to sit by yourself and give the impression that you just need some time to sit by yourself, on account of your loss. You could think about your book, and no one would know the difference. A good strategy would be to sit until the line goes down, thinking about your book, then get in line after just about everyone has gone through. That would limit the time spent in line, and by the time you get to the widow she too is worn out and just wants to be done with it. Isn’t this awful advice? But it will work.

    • I think about books or my writing when my mind is supposed to be on something else, and people usually can’t tell. You’re right. That would have been better than reading a book


  5. Driving on a highway is definitely a worse place to read a book than at a funeral.

  6. I’ve read in so many inappropriate places I have immediate sympathy with anyone struggling to put down a book, no matter where they are. I especially like that you didn’t canonise your colleague in this post, writing the thought process you went through about what to say to his wife really made me laugh. Thanks!

    • “I’ve read in so many inappropriate places I have immediate sympathy with anyone struggling to put down a book, no matter where they are.” – In what inappropriate places have you read books? A wedding? A job interview? Now I’m curious.

      • I started writing examples in my first comment and then thought I could get into trouble with other commenters so left it alone. However… When younger I always read while walking, and was beeped at constantly (understandable). I’ve read when dragged to watch sport matches. I’ve read hiding in the loos at work. I don’t think I’ve read at a wedding but I guarantee I’ve thought about it. I’ve read at traffic lights. I’ve read at dinner parties. I once had a job interview where we ended up reading bits of Tolkien books out to each other (got the job). Books are just so much more wonderful than real life, no?

  7. I read an interview with author George RR Martin. He said since his books had been turned into TV shows, he became a “celebrity writer” which he defined as strangers being able to recognize him by on sight. Not saying I agree with your co-worker about famous authors, but he does seem to make a valid point about recognizing famous faces haha.

    • I wouldn’t recognize George RR Martin if I ever saw him (I wonder if I’ve ever seen him and not known it), but I’d still consider him a celebrity writer.

      I can think of (maybe) three authors whom I might recognize (if they haven’t aged much since the pictures on the backs of their books were taken).

  8. No, kinda inappropriate to read at a funeral. Not to mention, on the rude side. But I hate lines too. Still.

  9. Your co-worker was way off about writers not being famous just because we don’t know what they look like. Unlike actors and singers, writers are famous for their words, not their faces. I remember when Tom Clancy died. I was a bit sad that we would have no more Jack Ryan novels (or films) but I couldn’t tell you what other celebrity died the same week.

    As for reading a book at a funeral, you could have dropped the odd quip like “these Gospels are way easier to understand in e-book form with all the notes, aren’t they?” Of course, if you’d been reading a laugh-out-loud comedy book, that might not have worked out too well…

    I love your blog, and the way you phrase things.

    • “…you could have dropped the odd quip like “these Gospels are way easier to understand in e-book form with all the notes, aren’t they?”

      That’s a great idea. If I were a quick thinker, I could have done that. If I ever again feel like reading a book in a similar environment, I’ll consider doing that. I probably won’t do it, but I’ll at least have it as an option.

  10. hmmmmm, I could walk past every single footballer in the world except Beckham, Ronaldo and maybe three others and have no idea who they are but when people talk about them I do recognise their names…..does that still mean they are famous? or not famous at all? I have no idea where I stand on the matter- it’s not that I’m on the fence, I’m sure that I care one way or the other, I’m just not sure which way yet.

  11. 1) Big writers are definitely celebrities

    2) We write so much because we aren’t good at talking to people, I think. The social butterflies in the world don’t do a lot of writing.

    3) I got in big trouble as a kid for reading while walking across a crowded parking lot. Maybe worse than a funeral? Certainly the risk factor is higher.

  12. I really enjoyed your post. I don’t think reading at a funeral is appropriate, but you didn’t end up reading so that’s alright 🙂 I also liked what you said to his wife in the end. Good job.

  13. I think the bottom line is that you should not have felt compelled to attend the funeral of a person whom you did not care for at all. Perhaps staying away might make you look bad (so what, they’ll get over it), but no worse that you looked reading while there.

  14. If I need to talk to a stranger at a funeral, I usually stick with the architecture or landscaping. As I typed this, I realized that most funerals I go to are at churches. I have no idea what I’d say at a funeral home. Authors are celebrities; some are even artists. Reading during the service is bad; afterwards, not so much.

  15. This was hilarious. I’ll admit, I read quite a bit in the bathroom, albeit sitting on the side of the tub. With two adopted kids, my only peace is if they think I’m “taking a moment,” as they call it. 🙂

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