Sunday Salon: Reading Assumptions

I am a book voyeur. When I’m out and about and notice someone reading a book, I’ll crane my neck and try to see what the book is. I’m not bold enough to start a conversation about it, but I love to see what people are reading. Part of it is just liking to know what books are out there, what books are interesting different people. But part of it is that I think that what people read says something about them, and so I like to think that I’m getting a glimpse into a person’s character by seeing what that person reads.

But is that really a fair conclusion? Does what we read really say much about us? If you were to ask me that question outright, I’d say yes, but as I think about it, I realize that my reading choices are complex and a glance at one book I’m reading at one particular moment really doesn’t say much about me at all. Further, a lot of the things that I think about people’s reading choices are more about stereotypes and assumptions than about the reality of a reading life.

Take my own public reading as an example. Just about the only place where I regularly read in public is at work, where I usually do my rereading. Earlier this year, I reread The Lord of the Rings, and any of my officemates who don’t know me well could draw all kinds of conclusions about me on the basis of that reading choice. Did they immediately brand me as a friendless geek who considers elves and dwarves more interesting than real people? Did they imagine that the only friends I had were the people I play Dungeons and Dragons with on weekends? Those who know me would know that those assumptions are unfair. As it happens, I’ve never played D&D, and I am geeky but not exactly in the stereotypical Tolkien fan-geek way.

People, including me, make these kinds of assumptions all the time. How many times have you heard people suggest that adult women who love Twilight are emotionally stunted and utterly unsophisticated in their reading choices? While that may be true in some cases, I know plenty of adult women who recognized the weaknesses of the Twilight books, both on a writing and a thematic level, but who enjoyed it as a fun page-turner of a book. As much as I’m uninterested in reading Twilight, I can’t fault a person for appreciating it on that level.

I’ve also seen people write off whole genres or authors without ever trying them. Fantasy gets characterized as simple escapism for people who can’t handle real life. Mysteries get trashed as junk food. Stephen King gets classed as a poor writer merely because he writes horror—and popular horror at that. I’m not saying that everyone needs to read or enjoy these genres. Not every genre suits everyone’s tastes, but writing off whole genres without giving them due consideration or making assumptions about readers of those genres is simple book snobbery. (And due consideration, in my opinion, need not require a person to read the books of a particular author or genre;  we don’t, after all, have time to read everything. Due consideration does, however, mean making an effort to understand what readers see in those books before making glib assumptions.)

These kinds of  assumptions don’t just involve people looking down on others for their low-brow reading choices. It goes both ways, with people assuming that those who don’t read popular fiction are insufferable prigs just reading to impress rather than for pleasure. For example, when I was reading Infinite Jest on my lunch breaks last summer, people might have assumed I was a pretentious hipster wannabe. People often lump classic fiction into a “school reading” category and assume it’s all boring and that no one could possibly enjoy it. So readers of classic fiction get classed as book snobs whether they are or not.

The fact is, tastes are different. Not everyone will enjoy reading the same things. Some people will prefer old books to new books, realistic books to fantasy books, suspenseful books to slow burners. Others may enjoy sampling bits and pieces of almost all genres and eras, depending on their mood at the time. Those tastes may or may not say something significant about the person. You can’t know without knowing the whole story.

Do you ever make assumptions about people based on their reading choices? What do you think your reading might say about you?


Notes on a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • The Hidden Shore by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. The 19th Morland Dynasty book.
  • Before the Fact by Francis Iles. Psychological thriller that Hitchcock used as the basis for the movie Suspicion. For the Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour. Review coming June 10.
  • Fables 12: The Dark Ages by Bill Willingham. A transitional volume in the series that’s not as strong as others but that leaves room for interesting developments.

Currently Reading

  • The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. The first of Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I read and enjoyed Tigana by Kay more than 10 years ago and have had this trilogy on my list at least that long. It’s about time I read it!
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (reread). I’m over halfway through and cannot adequately express how much I love this book.
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (audio). I’m probably ¾ of the way through this and am uncertain of my feelings about it. I’m not connecting with it, despite the excellent writing and interesting construction.
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. At this point, I’ve just read a couple of letters.

New Acquisitions

  • Under My Skin by Doris Lessing. When I read Alfred and Emily last year, I liked the writing but felt like I was missing something by not already being familiar with Lessing’s life, which does sound interesting, so I decided to read her autobiography. Alas, my library doesn’t have it, but a copy finally showed up on Bookmooch.
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. I’m generally content with my novel-reading abilities, but I sometimes wonder if my reading isn’t on the shallow side. I often wondered that in my college literature classes, so I was intrigued by the concept of this book. My library doesn’t have it, but a copy finally appeared on Paperbackswap.com, but now that I have it and have looked it over, I wonder if I’ll find it too simplistic.
  • The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. The thoughts of an 18th-century Jesuit on how God speaks to people every day.

On My Radar

  • The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley. Berkeley also wrote psychological suspense novels under the name Francis Iles, and Jenny and I read one of his Iles books for the Classics Circuit this month. I was impressed and interested in checking out one of his more traditional mysteries. In this one, six different amateur sleuths are called in to solve a murder, and each has a different solution! Fleur at Fleur Fisher Reads says, “It was a wonderful roller-coaster ride as cases were built and then demolished.” 
  • The Case of William Smith by Patricia Wentworth. Niranjana at Brown Paper describes Miss Silver, the detective in this book as Miss Marple’s Cleverer Sister: “And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling.” I’m not a big Marple fan, but this elderly spinster sounds like a detective I might appreciate.
  • Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter explores the hyper-sexualization of the modern woman, starting with very young girls. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says it is “a hugely important and timely book. I read it a few months ago now, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”
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49 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading Assumptions

  1. I’m reading Jude the Obscure too.

    I think it’s human to judge people not just by what they are reading but what they wear, drive, all of that. It’s not a good thing but it is natural. It’s something I have to work on myself.

    • Teresa says:

      Chris, Yay another Jude reader! Hope you’re liking it. Have you read it before?

      And yes the tendency to judge for all kinds of reasons is totally human.

  2. Nymeth says:

    “Due consideration does, however, mean making an effort to understand what readers see in those books before making glib assumptions.”

    Yep. That’s all I ever really ask of people. But of course, many seem to believe that simply deciding that those readers must be stupid and immature is so much quicker and easier. I agree with you that we *all* have the tendency to make assumptions and to jump to conclusions. But we’re all capable of countering this tendency, I think. I wouldn’t resent anyone for an occasional thoughtless assumption (I’ve made them myself), but people who take pleasure in belittling others for what they deem their unworthy reading choices I simply have no time for. Life is too short for deliberate arrogance and unkindness. And they don’t make people sound nearly as clever or sophisticated as they seem to think.

    • Teresa says:

      Ana, I can get past the odd flippant remark pretty easily, especially since I know I’ve made them myself. But a pattern of being unwilling to get past preconceived ideas is another thing altogether.

  3. amymckie says:

    How interesting! I definitely make assumptions based on what people are reading, but I will often times start up a conversation (on an airplane or in an airport) about books too and make assumptions about that more so than just the one book. Great point that you really can’t make any kind of assumption based on only one book – I read almost everything, so any one book would never accurately portray me!

    • Teresa says:

      Amy, my tastes are so all over the place that I don’t think anyone could get a fix on my tastes from just one book!

      I’m often tempted to start conversations about books I see people with, but I’m too much of a shy chicken to do it.

  4. Study Window says:

    One of the reasons I value the reading groups to which I belong is that I know that the choices made by the other members will open up new writers and sometimes even new genres for me. There have been many books over the years that I would never have thought of picking up had it not been for the need to read then for discussion.
    On the subject of speaking to people who you see reading, when my mother, by then well in her eighties saw anyone reading a ‘Harry Potter’ book she would always make a beeline for them and strike up conversation. Young men reading in their lunch hour always seemed to feel particularly vulnerable.

    • Teresa says:

      Ann, I enjoyed that about my previous book club as well, but it was a double-edged thing because there were some books I avoided because I knew I wouldn’t like them much! Once in a while I was pleasantly surprised, but often my suspicions were confirmed.

  5. Frances says:

    What you say here is so true. And I think that most of us, like you, have experienced both sides of this. I read the occasional mystery and a LOT of children’s books for work. Here in hyper bookish DC, you can imagine the reactions of some for these reading choices. I also read a lot of poetry and some literary criticism and cultural anthropology stuff. Those choices pull toward your Infinite Jest experience.

    What I also wonder is how much we do the avoidance dance as bloggers too. My blog certainly does not reflect everything I am reading and I would be curious to know how many other people are in the same spot. Maybe the choices don’t match the rest of your content? Maybe you don’t want to put readers off with your choices – either high brow or low brow? Hmmm.

    • Teresa says:

      Frances, It’s true that in a bookish area like this, people are bound to have opinions about others’ reading.

      That’s an interesting question about what we bloggers choose not to talk about. I do blog about all my reading, except for my reading for school–that’s mostly because I don’t read entire books for school but I also do wonder/worry what readers of this blog would think of my theological reading and of my thoughts about said reading. (I’m getting over my worry about that, but still…) But other that, people can pretty much see that my tastes range widely. And Jenny’s tastes are equally diverse, so it works out well for us.

      I know some bloggers try to give their blog a niche and so they only tend to write about books that fall into that niche, which makes sense. I couldn’t do it, but I can see why others would.

  6. Audrey says:

    I have a friend who completely surprised me when she told me she is a sci-fi fan and that is mostly what she reads. I would have assumed she was more of a historical novel gal. I’m not sure what people would assume of me, but I am a lover of fantasy and sci-fi books as well. To add to your great list is one I just finished called, “Bloodline Alliance,” which completely kept my interest and went above the norm in that the story had a really good message with unforgettable characters. You should check it out!

    • Teresa says:

      Audrey, I’ve had that same kind of thing happen, where people I think I have pegged surprise me with their reading choices.

      And thanks for the suggestion. I’ll check it out. I don’t read heaps of fantasy, but I do enjoy it from time to time.

  7. Jenny says:

    I judge people based on their reading choices, but I try to get a broad idea of what they read before putting on my sneering face. I don’t usually judge people on what they’re reading when I have craned my neck to check out their book, but I do sometimes feel disappointed. I feel satisfied and happy when someone on a bus or train is reading an author I love; it’s a letdown if they’re reading, I don’t know, Tami Hoag or James Patterson. On the other hand, I have judged my sublessor to be a smidge pretentious and absolutely swimming in class and race anxiety, based on the books in his apartment.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I’ve had the same kind of letdown on the Metro, not because I assume they’re inferior people for reading Patterson or whatever, but because it’s just such a popular, predictable choice.

      And yes, there’s a big difference between what looking at what a person is reading at one moment and looking at their whole collection. (When I find a new book blog, one of the first things I do is see if they have a books reviewed or read page so I can see if our sensibilities are similar.)

  8. One thing I have learned since discovering the world of book blogging is that people’s tastes vary widely and it is not possible to “brand” someone based on a few of their book selections – although I admit it is tempting to do that at times!

    You may enjoy a website I have found – Cover Spy – it chronicles the books seen being read by NYC subway riders each week. It showcases the cover and a few observations about the reader (approx age, clothing, etc) and the subway line they were riding. It’s a fun site to flip through!

    • Teresa says:

      Colleen, That’s one of the things I enjoy about book blogging–discovering how diverse people’s tastes are. I’m often surprised by the books that show up on different people’s blogs.

      That cover spy site sounds neat. I wonder if there’s something similar for the DC Metro–must investigate…

  9. cbjames says:

    I don’t judge people based on what I see them reading, but I will look over their bookshelves if I’m invited into their homes. I don’t think you can learn much from a single book, but you can get some insight into a person if you can get access to an entire bookcase.

    • Teresa says:

      James, it’s true a whole bookcase says more than the odd book. And when I go to someone’s house that’s the first thing I want to do! I try to refrain myself from openly scoping out the books before I’m invited (I’m really shy about stuff like that), but if I end up sitting where I can see a bookcase, my eyes continually drift toward it.

  10. Carolyn says:

    You’ve phrased this wonderfully, how people can make assumptions about others for just about every kind of book, when really, we all enjoy reading, what’s to judge? Somehow it seems to become a competition of my way is best.

    I do enjoy looking at what books my fellow library workers have on the staff holds shelf! It gives an interesting glimpse into their preoccupations.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Carolyn. I do love to know what others are reading, but I think the most interesting question is “why are you reading that?”

  11. fleurfisher says:

    We all read for different reasons, and we find different things in books at different times of our lives.

    My mother was an English teacher and still speaks about the classics she loved, but now she is losing her short term memory she can’t keep track of elaborate plots. Instead she reads fairly formulaic mainstream novels, and is pleased every time when things work out exactly as she hoped.

    Her love of books, and the people she meets in them, is undiminished, it’s just her worldview that has changed.

    Generally my only concern is that maybe someone is reading something mediocre when there is something they would love so much more but haven’t found yet. Or that maybe I am missing something.

    • Teresa says:

      Fleur, You’re absolutely right that we have different needs at different times, and that story of your mother is a great example.

      When I graduated college, after four years of little besides assigned literature, I feasted on detective novels and young adult books (the YA was partly for work, as I was a teacher at the time). It was kind of a relief to read things that didn’t require the level of attention that I had given to my assigned reading. Gradually, the classics have worked their way back into my diet.

      And if someone’s reading something mediocre, perhaps the answer is to suggest something better along similar lines (not necessarily telling them that it’s better, just that it’s similar).

  12. shawjonathan says:

    I couldn’t get past “we don’t, after all, have time to read everything”. Oh Noooooo!

    • Teresa says:

      Tis a sad realization isn’t it, Jonathan?

      …unless perhaps heaven includes a library filled with all the books we haven’t gotten to yet.

  13. Danielle says:

    I’m always curious about what other people are reading, but I don’t think I judge them based on their choices since I know my own reading is all over the place–I think I am pretty varied in what I will try. I’m more interested in overlap and finding common likes in books so I can chat with someone about them. And I also like it when I find out about books I’m not familiar with–because you can never have too many books. As to what my own reading says about me, I do wonder about that. I think I worry more about it than about anything someone else might be reading.

    • Teresa says:

      Danielle, I do enjoy it when I see someone at work reading a book I’ve read. That often leads to good conversations. And if that happens often enough I’ll start taking an interest in the books they read that I haven’t read.

  14. Dani in NC says:

    I must admit that I do plug most of the people around me into certain stereotypical categories based on my past experience. The men all say they never read, and the majority of the women say they don’t have time to read. The few women I know who do read tend to read romance, a category that I am still trying to overcome my bias against. So, yes, I do make judgments that could possibly be unfair, but I’m working on it.

    As far as people judging me on what I read in public, good luck! These days I purposely carry books with me that I can easily explain if asked about them. That means I leave the literary novels, the sci-fi, and anything quirky at home. The people around me probably think all I read are YA novels :-).

    • Teresa says:

      Dani, I’m lucky in that most of the people around me these days read a variety of things, but I did go through phases where it seemed everyone made the same predictable reading choices.

  15. Steph says:

    Since Tony and I met on an online dating site, I have to say that yes, I have judged people based on reading material! One of the questions you could fill out was what you were currently reading (as well as mention your favorite books). Many people wrote down that The Da Vinci Code was their favorite book… and I took that as a sign that we probably weren’t meant to be!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, Ah yes, I did the same when I was doing online dating. There were certain books mentioned frequently that almost always put people on my “no way” list. It’s one thing for a guy to read “The Da Vinci Code” or “Wild at Heart” (probably the most frequent mention on the Eharmony profiles I got matched with), but listing it as a favorite? Bleargh!

  16. Iris says:

    I think making assumptions on the one book you see someone read happens very often. I don’t think I could say that I don’t do it at times. You’re right though, you can’t judge a person on what you see them reading at a particular moment. But I know it happens. It’s why I often feel selfconscious about taking books with me on the train.

  17. Teresa, I also involuntarily put people in mental file-closets based on the book they’re reading. Twilight is a classic example: I make snap assumptions, but the weird thing is that not so long ago I was also in public reading a copy to see what the fuss want about, and don’t identify with the twilight-stereotype at all. Glass windows and all that!

    I tend to be especially tough on self-help books… Still, I do love to be surprised, like the skater I saw 2 days ago in the metro reading Anna Karenina!

    • Teresa says:

      Alex, I hardly ever read self-help, but if I did I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t read it out of the house! (But would I blog about it? Hmmm…)

  18. Deb says:

    It’s hard and I’m not always successful, but I do try not to make assumptions about people based on one book that I just happen to catch them reading, in much the same way as I try (not always successfully) not to make assumptions about the person in line ahead of me at the grocery store who just happens to buy nothing but sodas and junk food on that one day they were in front of me. After I know a person a bit better, the books they choose may or may not surprise me, but that’s because I’ve learned something more about them and their outlooks and interests.

    As for the books on your radar, I’m looking for LIVING DOLLS right now–it sounds like an important book. I have a teenage daughter and two “tween” daughters and I’m extremely discouraged as to how sexualized the culture around them is becoming.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, I know just what you mean about the grocery store! I have to remind myself what my grocery basket looks like when I’m having a junk food craving.

      I haven’t seen Living Dolls anywhere in the US, but I did see it in a London bookstore and was tempted, but at that point I hadn’t heard anything about it and so didn’t buy it.

  19. This is a really interesting topic. While I think I’m reasonably good at not judging others by their reading choices (probably because of my own secret weaknesses), I am careful about what I read in public — because I don’t want people (random strangers, mind you!) thinking that I’m one of those women who reads romance novels, self-help books, etc.

  20. I sometimes make assumptions about people based on what they’re reading, but I don’t think I’d let that assumption color the way I’d interact with them if we happened to start talking or something. Looking at what people reads mostly just makes me curious — why would they choose it, is this the only book they’ve read in awhile, what do they think of it? I was sitting on the plane next to a woman reading “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I desperately wanted to ask her about it, but was too shy.

  21. Glad to see Wentworth on your radar. I look forward to reading your review.

    I’m pretty shameless about looking at other people’s books. When I was in the process of buying a home and visiting open houses, I’d check out the book collections in the house before inspecting the kitchen or whatever.

    • Teresa says:

      Niranjana, It might be a while before I get around to the Wentworth, but my library does have several of her books, so that’s a hopeful sign!

      I’m sad to report that hardly any of the condos I visited when I was home buying had books on the shelf–and I looked at a bunch that had built-in bookshelves (a common feature in my condo community).

  22. gaskella says:

    I’m shameless too about examining other people’s bookcases! You can tell a lot about people from the breadth of stuff they read, but out and about its more difficult – and even I will read ‘trash’ if the mood takes me, so it’s impossible to judge. However if I see someone reading or considering a really good book, I might just strike up a conversation if the right opportunity presents itself. A lot of people in our town think I work in the bookshop anyway as its like a second home!

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel, I wish I were that bold because I do sometimes want to ask people about their books! I do it at work sometimes though, but my coworkers aren’t strangers, and a lot of them are editors and therefore a bit bookish and eager to talk about their reading.

  23. rebeccareid says:

    This is very interesting, because I’ve noticed lately that when friends ask me what I’m reading, I hesitate to answer because I don’t want them to judge my prolific reading by the one book I happen to be reading right now. I try to read a lot, but it always ends up classics, so I kind of hope they are okay when I answer “some classics.”

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I sometimes find that question difficult as well because I don’t always read books everyone has heard of, so then I have to explain, and if it’s a prepublication copy (which isn’t often), then I have to explain that. And then it just gets all complicated. Instead, I’ll sometimes mention what I just finished, just depending oh which I think would be of more interest.

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