Sitting on the sideline at my son’s basketball practice I was reminded of a mild malady from which I suffer: biblio curiositas. A medical dictionary might describe such an illness as a sudden, urgent desire to know what it is that person sitting next to me is reading. I’m paraphrasing, of course. Still, I find that when I see someone reading nearby, friend or stranger, I need to know what it is they are reading.
The mechanics of this can be tricky. Even if I know the person, they are often engrossed in the book (making me all the more curious) and I am loathe to interrupt and break the spell. I know all too well the magic of that spell and can become surly when someone breaks it for me. Instead, I will glance over and see if I can make out the cover.
This works about 50% of the time. After all, if I am sitting on the person’s right, the cover is almost impossible to see. So I will look for an excuse to move to the person’s left. I found myself in this very situation at the basketball practice. I had a half a Subway sandwich in my lap and wolfed it down quickly in order to have some trash to throw away. That allowed me to walk back to my seat from the reader’s left. Unfortunately, this particular reader had the book flat in his lap and I couldn’t make out anything.
I could have asked when he paused to check his phone. But honestly, I hate it when people ask me what I am reading because it breaks the flow and spoils the spell. “Whatcha reading?” someone asks, and I’ll usually hold up the book so they can see the title. “Oh, that looks interesting,” they say, and with that single phrase judge the book by its cover, “what’s it about?” which leads off into the mundane world, far off from the magical place I was held spellbound a few moments earlier. I realize the irony in this, but what can I do, it’s this disease?
Instead, I’ll keep casting glances at the book trying to tease out what it is from various hints I catch: an author’s last name, the title of a chapter. Meanwhile, all of this has taken away from my own reading. Instead of enjoying whatever it was that had engrossed me moments before, I’m trying to figure out what this fella’s engrossed in. I realize the irony here, too, but I am helpless.
Kindles and e-book readers have made this maddeningly more difficult. If someone has a Kindle propped on their knees instead of a meaty hardcover, it is virtually impossible to figure out what they are reading, short of asking, and we’ve already been there.
So difficult is the task of teasing out the titles of these books that they become their own reward. I’ve taken to collecting these titles, the ones I uncover anyway, the way a lepidopterologist collects their brightly-winged specimens. I jot these precious titles in my Field Notes notebook even if I never plan on reading them. The effort is too much to waste. My most recent specimen, successfully collected (at great effort) at the very basketball practice herein described: Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove.
Biblio curiositas is not limited to what I nearby person is reading. If I see books anywhere, I need to know what they are. Like a prospector panning for gold, I need to filter through them in search of a gem. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we headed out to Woodlawn and toured an old plantation house. On the same property, a few hundred yards away, is the Pope-Leighty house, a Frank Lloyd Wright house custom built for a fellow who really wanted a FLW place of his own. While Peter, our guide, described the architectural detail of the living room of the 1,200 square foot house, I faced the wall-to-wall built-in bookshelves at the back of the room, skimming the titles there as quickly as I could.
If someone is reading a book in a TV show or movie, I want to know what it is they are reading. If I happen to recognize the book, I squeal with delight.
Science fiction conventions are a particularly dangerous place for someone with biblio curiositas, as one might imagine. With people scattered throughout the hotel lobby, restaurant, and bar, noses deep in books, such places are minefields, making it nearly impossible to cross a room without stealing a glance or two or three or four.
As I said, biblio curiositas is a mild malady, but it does have one benefit that makes up for all of its symptoms: there is no known cure. If you’ve got the disease, you’d got it for life. That makes me happy.