. . . or Piketty, or Dickens, or McCullough, or whatever the great work of the week is.
Anyone else remember book covers from school or later? They were leather, or padded cloth, with handles. Or they were paper and you cut, taped, and folded them around your book to protect it. And you propped said book up on your desk while “taking notes” i.e. reading something else during class. Enter the e-reader.
On an e-reader, no one knows what you are reading. It could be a reprint of a work on capitalism by a Chicago-school economist. Or a bodice ripper romance. Or an “adult western.” Or science fiction. Or LGBTQ fiction, or social analysis. You could be reading War and Peace in Russian, or the collected poems of Goethe in German, or the print version of a telanovela. Or one of those books that used to come from suspiciously blandly named publishers “in discreet, plain boxes” that were advertised in the back of magazines that people swore that they read only for the articles. And no one will know unless they get close enough to seriously violate your personal space. Or if you accidentally turn on the text-to-audio function.
I joke that “on an e-reader, everyone’s reading Dostoyevsky,” or I did until I had to explain to a slightly confused soul what I was referring to and that no, everyone was not reading major works of Russian literature. My Kindle has works ranging from Heimatromanen (a genre of German-language popular light novel) to academic tomes that make my eyes cross to read them to science fiction to Georgette Heyer to M. M. Kaye’s autobiography to De Soto’s analysis of capitalism in the Third World to my own stuff to guides on how to not egregiously screw up historical fiction (as in, medieval people in England did not smoke tobacco or drink hot chocolate. Nor would they describe someone as having been railroaded.) And no one knows or cares. Although when I’m taking notes in longhand from the text on an e-reader, I do get some odd looks, I will admit. Otherwise the only time I’ve ever had someone ask what I was reading was in the orthodontist’s waiting area a few years ago, when I started choking as I tried not to laugh too loudly at Kate Paulk’s ConVent. (After that, I can’t keep a straight face at dinners at meetings when they serve chicken. It’s just not possible.)
What I’m getting at is that e-readers allow a lot of people to read whatever they desire, wherever they are, without worrying about it. You want to read a theological text, or a trashy novel, or a book with the kind of cover art that used to draw disapproving glares from older matrons? You are free to do so and no one will blink. There’s no “plain brown wrapper” to imply that whatever is behind the paper is very, very naughty, even if it isn’t. I suspect that is a secondary attraction of e-readers, at least for some people. I’d just as soon not have to explain to the mother of a 6-year-old why there’s a picture of a naked woman on the cover of a book that I’m reading, even if it is an art-history textbook.
I assume that some people treat their e-reading devices the same way others flash the book-of-the-season, carefully setting them so that a casual glance reveals a serious work of great literature or economic policy analysis. The rest of us don’t care. Because that pink and purple rhinestone zebra-stripe Hello Kitty smartphone cover? Sorry, even reading Chekov plays in Russian can’t make up for that.