We've all heard the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover." While the saying is intended to go deeper than actually judging books and be applied to not judging people on first impressions or looks or something similar, I realized I am guilty of another type of judging: Judging people based on their books. Actually, I am more guilty of worrying about other people judging me based on my book choices and going out of my way to make sure I have an "appropriate" book with me when I'm out in public (one reason I absolutely love the Kindle--it takes away the fear of being judged because no one can see what I'm reading unless they're looking over my shoulder at the screen). I then tend to admire the people who could care less and read whatever it is they want to read regardless of who is looking their way.
I realized I am not the only one who worries about being judged on silly things when one of my favorite authors, Sarah Addison Allen, posted as her Facebook status, "Today I realized that I get embarrassed when I look around and see that my windshield wipers are going faster than everyone else's." The status post cracked me up and made me realize that I get an odd sense of satisfaction if I can keep my windshield wipers going at a slower pace than everyone else's. As if my ability to see through rain is my very own super power. As if other people are watching the speed of my wipers, wishing they could be as savvy as I am. As if anyone actually cares.
My realization that I am not alone in thinking I am being judged for many silly things in life was further backed up by Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, a book I am now reading at my sister's repeated suggestion. On the very first page of text is a list of Bridget's resolutions; the first list is an "I will not" list, one of her "will nots" being the following:
"Waste money on . . . books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves . . ."
Wanting impressive books appears to be one possible side effect of a national disease: wanting to "keep up with the Joneses." We, oh so naturally, assume that our book choices directly reflect our intelligence or cultural status and, thus, feel pressured to reach for that more impressive, intelligent-sounding book to show off our literary genius.
Going on in the book, Bridget's mom and mom's friends try to set Bridget up with Mark Darcy, the son of other family friends, at a party. It is an awkward situation, to say the least, and both Bridget and Mark feel that pressure from being stuck in a situation neither wants to be in. After Mark learns Bridget works in the publishing world, he attempts to start a conversation:
"I. Um. Are you reading any, ah . . . Have you read any good books lately?" he said.
Oh, for God's sake.
I racked my brain frantically to think when I last read a proper book. . . . I'm halfway through Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which Jude lent me, but I didn't think Mark Darcy, though clearly odd, was ready to accept himself as a Martian quite yet. Then I had a brainwave.
"Backlash, actually, by Susan Faludi," I said triumphantly. Hah! I haven't exactly read it as such, but feel I have as Sharon has been ranting about it so much. Anyway, completely safe option as no way diamond-pattern-jumpered goody-goody would have read five-hundred-page feminist treatise.
"Ah. Really?" he said. "I read that when it first came out. Didn't you find there was rather a lot of special pleading?"
"Oh, well, not too much . . . ," I said wildly, racking my brains for a way to get off the subject. "Have you been staying with your parents over New Year?"
This conversation cracks me up because I have found myself putting a literary foot in my mouth when I try to impress someone else by claiming to have read a book when really all I read was the back cover. Then when asked a specific question, the floor seems to drop from below me as I try to cover up the fact that I have not, in fact, read the book. Or have any intention of ever reading the book. I have an ingrained fear of admitting to not knowing. Not knowing about the latest news flash. Not knowing about a literary author. Not knowing how exactly one defines "post-modernism." I especially feel this fear when I'm at work, as I am surrounded by literary specialists. My one literature course in college was Shakespeare--a course that didn't require reading long classic novels and being able to define literary eras.
One specific instance of my own paranoia of people judging my book choices is when I was selecting a book to bring with me to the doctor's office (I always carry a book because I hate just sitting in waiting rooms with nothing to do). I was reading a Janet Evanovich novel but instead brought along Pride and Prejudice as my reading material. I was sure all the other patients would be impressed at my selection and immediately know how brilliantly fascinating I am. I don't think a single person even bothered to glance my way as I shifted restlessly in the uncomfortable chair, flipping through the pages.
My challenge to myself is to get over the fear of being judged and read the books I've chosen with pride. After all, who really cares if I enjoy reading pop culture fiction?
Happy reading the books you want to read, whether they be literary classics or pop culture novels.