Sometimes it feels like the publishing industry has us all boxed off into dastardly delineated categories. We are either readers of crime, science fiction, sports autobiographies, or bird-watching manuals, but never all four. Everything must be packaged according to its genre, and there are labelling rules.
Chick-lit novels use loopy fonts, and have caricatures of shoes and dresses on the cover. Crime covers must be on a background of either black or white, and feature a gate, road, or implement of indeterminate ability to cause head trauma. Literary fiction covers depict shadowy figures facing away from you – but you know without even looking any way closely, that they’re pretty damned sad on a deep, metaphysical level (that is, when they take a short break from ennui).
Genre covers have to look the same, you see, because readers are stupid. And if we don’t recognise our genre within 2 seconds of approaching a bookshelf we will be distracted by hunger, fatigue, or something moderately shiny, and walk away without buying any books at all.
To add insult to injury, public perception affects us as readers too, because we become defined by what publishers decide for us, whether we agree with it or not. Books are as much an item of fashion – intellectual fashion, if you like – as any handbag or coat. We all make judgements about each other based on appearance, and whatever we’re seen to be reading forms part of that judgement.
When I started reading Harry Potter, I used to keep it open flat down on my lap on the bus because I didn’t want people to see me reading a children’s’ book. (Ah, look, I was in my 20s, and far too concerned about what random passers-by weren’t thinking about me; plus, Harry Potter hadn’t become cool for grown-ups yet. If that sounds like I’m trying to make myself out to be some sort of daft hipsterish trendsetter, I totally wasn’t. I just never got over my love of children’s books. I’d still sell my granny for a decent fairytale.)
But I still don’t want what I’m reading to be advertised. Just like a fashionista might not want to be seen in last year’s nose clips, or an indie guitar prince wouldn’t be seen dead at a One Direction concert, I don’t want to be defined merely as a fan of whatever I happen to be reading on one particular day, because I am a book snob. I don’t like that I am. But I am.
The Multi-Book Strategy
I might protest that I’d defend my right to read frothy formulaic romance to the bitter end, yet I’d be mortified to meet someone for the first time whilst holding one. So I employ the multi-book strategy.
My current bus/handbag book is terrifically intelligent looking. It was written by an exotic Easterner and sports a ten-word title that positively screams out how smart I think I am. I am enjoying it, but I’m also finding it easy to put it down whenever I have to.
On the other hand, on my bedside table lies a book which is interfering with sensible bedtime; a torrid romance between two people who are perfectly lovely in every way, except for how stupid they are about each other and how obvious it is to everyone except themselves that they will be getting married quite shortly.
Just like underwear and gloopy spot cream, both are essential for my daily life, but only one is ever allowed to be on my person when I leave the house.
On another snobbery-related note, I don’t like publishers deciding that the book with the great story and fascinating characters is exactly the same as another crap one with the same cover. Not all genre fiction deserves the same packaging, but that’s marketing for you.
I wish my books had interchangeable covers which I could switch according to my mood, or according to which persona I feel like projecting at the time. But until I transfer to 100% e-Reader usage – which is unlikely – I’m stuck with juggling my public and private reading selves.
Are you a self-professed book snob? What do you refrain from reading in public?