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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: You Weren’t Supposed to Read in Public

June 12, 2018

(image via wikimedia)

Decades ago if I read a book in public, people looked at me like I was the crazy one.  Back then, only losers and social outcasts read books in public.  If you were normal, you either talked to others (and not to yourself), listened to your music, or stared blankly.  But you didn’t read.  The exceptions were at airports and… that was about it. If you were in a public place like a restaurant or a movie theater lobby and you brought a book, everybody else thought something was wrong with you.

Some guy 25 years ago called me a loser just for reading a book in public.  I was minding my own business in a movie theater lobby, and this guy tapped me on the shoulder and called me a loser.  I should have gotten mad, but then I saw he was wearing an REO Speedwagon t-shirt.  That took some nerve, I thought, a guy wearing an REO Speedwagon t-shirt calling me a loser.  To be fair, I knew the guy (a friend of a friend), and he could barely read the movie titles on the posters, but he was okay (except for his REO Speedwagon wardrobe).

When I was a kid, I even got yelled at in my own home for reading while the family was watching TV (and I was reading quietly).  I never could figure that one out.  I understood why reading in front of other people was rude because it looked like I was ignoring their company (I was).  But getting mad at me for reading while we were watching TV made no sense.  I was ignoring the TV, not my family.

As an introvert, I have always tried to avoid pointless interaction with others.  I can talk when I need to, but it drains my energy more than exercise.  Even though I can explain it now so that it kind of makes sense, I didn’t understand all of this when I was a kid.  I just knew I wanted to read.  I wanted to read at dinner.  I wanted to read in restaurants.  I wanted to read in the car (but I got nauseous).

Why did my parents want to talk to me anyway?  Most of my responses were kind of mono-syllabic (is it ironic that mono-syllabic has a lot of syllables?)-

Mom: How was your day?

Me: Good.

Mom: How was school?

Me: Fine.

Mom: What did you do?

Me: Nothing.

Mom: What did you learn?

Me: Nothing.

Mom: Why are you giving me one-word answers?

Me: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” isn’t a bad answer coming from a kid.  It’s three words, so it shows that the kid is trying.  Kids use one-word answers because they’re safe.  If I had actually talked about my feelings (“School sucks, it’s boring, everybody’s ugly and they all have bad breath”), I would have been called a whiner.  I would have gotten speeches about how lucky I had it (that was probably true), how kids all around the world wish they could go to school (that’s probably not true), and how rough my parents had it (also maybe true, but my dad embellished his stories a lot).  No kid wants to hear all that.  Awkward silence is better than hearing that.

Awkward silence is an oxymoron anyway.  Silence isn’t awkward.  It’s what was said or what happened before the silence that makes it awkward.  People should stop blaming silence.  In some ways, the world would be better with more silence.  If people didn’t talk so much and say inappropriate stuff, there wouldn’t be awkward silence.  There would just be silence, and that would be awesome!

Speaking of silence, that’s what I see (or hear) a lot now.  When I see families in a public place like a restaurant, they often aren’t interacting; they’re staring at their phones.  Couples sit at booths and tables, staring at their phones.  Even the restaurant employees stare at their phones between taking orders, bringing out food, and cleaning tables. I think, this is good.  This is how life should be.

Yeah, I know, just because people are staring at their phones doesn’t mean they’re reading.  They could be watching videos.  Or they could be spreading gossip (which means they’re reading).  Or they might actually be reading.  Truthfully, it doesn’t matter to me.  I can read, and nobody else cares.  Now when people see me staring at my phone in public… they’re not actually seeing me stare at my phone because they’re staring at their own phones.  The only people who’ll notice me are the traditional holdouts who don’t believe in technology or the criminals who want to conk me on the head (I always keep my back to the wall when I read in public).

The ironic part now is that when my own family eats out, I’m the one who talks the most.  My wife and daughters stare at their phones, and I go into Dad mode, watching the entrances for weirdos and keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.  I have to protect my family.  I can’t allow them to get conked on their heads while they’re staring at their phones.  If reading in public is accepted now, somebody has to be vigilant.  That’s okay.  It’s my job, to provide my family with the childhood I wish I’d had.  All that time when I was kid, I wished that I could read in public.  Now my wish has come true.  Technology has created the world I’ve always dreamed about.

But growing up in a world where people were expected to talk to each other in public and NOT read?  That’s getting really tough to explain today.

From → Dysfunctileaks

  1. Great post :O) I remember reading Mort by Terry Pratchett in public and laughing out loud….a lot…..I thought someone was going to call the men in white coats ;O)

    • Laughing out loud while reading public… that probably requires an entirely different blog post.

      It all depends on the nature of the laughing out loud (volume of laugh, duration of laugh, noise level of your surroundings, etc…). I’m going to have to think about this.

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