Reading in public

September 9th, 2017 | Posted by Mush in Reading

In which I don’t really do this anymore.

I used to read in bars all the time. Paper books in the day, then Newtons, PDAs, eBook readers, phones and Kindles.

Most bars have at least some comfortable seating with a reasonable amount of light, and they have drinks, too, of course. Nothing better than a book and a cocktail.

And they often have snacks, if not a full menu, should you should happen to read right through to the next mealtime.

An afternoon spent reading a good book in a bar can be freakin’ wonderful. This guy knows how it’s done:

I remember, back in the day, bitching about people bothering me while I was reading in bars. “Whatcha reading?” is a question I used to answer in earnest, believing that people were actually interested in the answer, but after awhile I discovered the only correct answer to a random, unsolicited “Hey. Whatcha readin’?”

That answer is: “A book.”

People who ask you what you’re reading in a bar do not care that you’re reading science fiction with a really interesting take on consciousness that reminds me of some Vedanta I’ve read and also makes me wonder about the Three Laws and if Asimov’s robots could genuinely want to not be programmed morally. No, people don’t want to have a cool discussion about consciousness, they’re just doing bar behavior, which is generally to talk to people. Especially girls. Especially girls who are reading a book in a bar.

These days I don’t go to bars nearly as often as I used to, and when I do go it’s specifically to drink (usually because it’s past ten o’clock and you can’t buy booze after that outside of a bar in this state), not to hang out and read. And even if I do read, it’s usually just stupid social media on my phone.

Which is, of course, not real reading. Nowhere near.

I read a little in a bar on my birthday last year. I went to the VFW in the afternoon and had cheese curds and a bloody mary, and if I recall correctly I had my Paperwhite with me, as well as my traveler’s notebook. But it wasn’t really an afternoon of comfortable reading in a bar the way I remember it. I sat at the front bar, which is modern and loud and cold and not comfortable, and I drank my delicious adult beverage so quickly I passed through the mellow buzz so perfect for reading in about six minutes, and mostly I just wrote in my journal and made myself sick on fried cheese.

These days, I read much less long-form material than I used to. This is mostly due to quitting smoking. I used to sit outside and smoke and read; now I vape inside, which means I can be in front of the computer. I used to read a hundred books a year at the minimum; since I quit smoking, I’ve read far less than half that.

Smoking wasn’t the only reason, though. I’d also started to get annoyed with fiction; when you’ve read voraciously all your life, you’ve already read most stories in one form or another. There are, even in SF, only so many plots, only so many unique world-building twists. I can only stomach certain forms of romance, and only for so long, and even period piece mysteries require the right mood.

Short sci-fi, my previous go-to when I couldn’t find anything to read, had started going away from science and into gender and queer issues, which is fine, but not typically interesting to me when I’m trying to read science fiction. I mean, if you can say something about sex or gender inside a sci-fi story that has interesting sci and fi, that’s great, but just putting a gay couple in space without examining the space itself or the science that sustains it? Boring, after the twelfth time you encounter it, because it’s not sci-fi. It’s just a story about a gay couple you’re using as a platform to lecture people about your social politics; you’re not really examining the broader human condition or asking insightful questions. If you can put your characters in Nevada without needing to change the story at all, you’re not writing sci-fi, which is what I bought that magazine for in the first place, thanks tons, you’re just writing regular old fiction I am not hugely interested in reading.

Case in point: I bought the current issue of Asimov’s magazine. Properly called Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’m not reading the stories in order, but the two I’ve read so for are ghost stories. Fiction, yes, but not science. I mean, they’re good stories, but I’d expect to find them in some other sort of magazine.

I mean, really: where is the actual hard science fiction? I’m giving it some years off, deliberately, so, hopefully, I’ll have a stack of brilliant shit to read when I come back to it.

Right now I’m reading Sagan’s Contact, because somehow I’d never read it before, LeGuin’s Birthday of the World, a couple of memoirs (May Sarton and Ram Dass), and a bunch of Hindu and Buddhist non-fiction like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I also have two imported detective mysteries I bought in treeware format from the bookstore on 26th, but I’m barely halfway through one of them because they’re not backlit, our apartment is dim because we always use screens, and I never think to read them when the sun’s up.

But the point is, and I know I’ve said this before, I’m getting really tired of fucking social media. I spend hours just scrolling through shit, not reading or knitting or doing anything interesting even to myself, so it may be time to just back into the habit of spending an occasional afternoon in a bar nursing a cocktail and horking down some long-form reading. I don’t have to login to work until six, which means I don’t have to start dinner ’til five, which means I could snuggle up in a chair somewhere from lunchtime on, if I wanted, and I bet it would be far more relaxing and less frenetic than millions of tiny short bits of half-insane arguments sandwiched in between horrific news reports and dumb jokes. In the same way as I want to return to long-form reading, I’m drifting back to broadcast TV rather than on-demand services. If something is on, you watch it or not, no pausing, and then either you’ve seen it or it’s gone. The news is the news, not endless links to articles that may or may not be news, or batshit crazy noise masquerading as news, or outright propaganda. There’s something relaxing about the transience, and it’s no better or worse than Amazon or Netflix, really, although I’m fine with bingeing a series now and again.

Anyway, I’m going to go read now. I hope Florida’s all right in the morning, but I really doubt it will be and I’m terrified of the death toll. They’re predicting up to nine feet of storm surge in some areas, and a lot of humans and animals had no way to evacuate. I chatted with Floridians at work all night tonight, wanting to know if their home security systems were still up, and had to tell a lot of them that it looks like their homes don’t even have power anymore, let alone internet so they can view their camera feeds from the shelter.

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