January 27, 2022

With E-Books, Reading Goes Underground

I saw a tweet come across my stream today from John Hodgman, the comedian who had a stint on those wonderful Apple ads as the buttoned-up “PC” arrayed against the calmly confident casual “Mac”. The tweet said (see picture): “Middle aged business dude on the plane in Eddie Bauer and mom jeans reading Game of Thrones. The nerd/jock convergence is happening.”

I immediately thought, “Oh, he was clearly reading a print book” since if he had it on an e-reader Hodgman wouldn’t have been able to glance over and see what he was reading. And then I thought “What a shame, we will increasingly be unable to notice what others are reading.”

Reading is going underground at the speed of e-reader adoption. No longer will people be able to proudly sport the latest intellectual best-seller on the subway, or impress one’s boss by having the flavor-of-the-month business advice tome placed carefully on one’s desk. Well, I guess you can still do that as long as print books are still available, but if you have an e-reading device your boss might begin to think she is being played.

I can’t help wondering if we will invent new ways to flaunt our reading habits, or whether instead this new-found privacy will enable us to stop posturing in public and simply read the trashy novels many of us secretly wish we could but were too embarrassed to take onto the street? You decide, and let me know in the comments.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. As much as I agree with the inability of being able to see what others are reading, this “feature” of eReaders is one explanation for the spike in sales of erotica titles.

  2. There are already new ways to flaunt our reading habits — Good Reads, Social Reading, and all kinds of apps and services that allow us to post what we are reading to our online social network of choice.
    What we don’t have (yet) is a way to project the book title to strangers on the bus.
    I don’t think reading is any less social in an e-book environment than in a physical book environment, it is just differently social.

  3. You might not be able to see the person’s book across the isle but sitting next to them, you can not only see what someone is reading on an ereader, you can often read along. Ereading, especially with the, um, older crowd, is usually done at a font much larger than that of a published book.

  4. Also no more need to hide your book titles!

  5. Maybe somebody will start marketing ‘vanity cases’, with e-ink or lcd screens on the outside that display the book cover.

  6. As with most things, both of your suggestions will call out to some followers. I am sure someone will create a new device that has a holographic image of a book jacket, the one you are reading, for all to see. Of course, the user can toggle that little bit of technology on or off.

  7. Celia White says:

    Similarly, how do young couples check out each others’ music or book collections these days? Can hardly imagine not knowing the taste of a potential partner in this way.

  8. How funny. I was only discussing this with friends last week – the lost marketing oppportunities of having book readers displaying your book jacket to fellow commuters, the games you can play ‘matching’ commuters with the books they are reading. Now I find I have to peer over peoples’ shoulders onto their Kindles and see if I recognise any text at all… Quite a challenge. Rude too! Maybe future generations of e-readers will have a ‘book jacket’ feature on the outside…

  9. Pat Mezger says:

    As I was dusting my book collection off this weekend, I had a similar train of thought. Half of the fun of visiting people in their homes is browsing their bookshelves and, hopefully, discovering titles or authors of common enjoyment or interest. Is it considered polite to ask someone with an e-reader to let you browse their electronic shelves?

  10. I work at one of the stores that sell eReaders, and we’ve been pitching them to teachers for their ability to disguise what students with below-average reading levels are reading in class. For example– an eighth grader who struggles to read Goosebumps while his classmates are reading Percy Jackson won’t be as embarrassed if no one can see what he’s reading. They can be a useful tool.