Monday, January 17, 2011

Kindle Peering

I confess.

I'm a book spy.

What avid reader isn't? When I'm on the Metro, though I may be squashed so tightly I can't free a hand to fish out my book and hold it in front of me (or, at least, not without elbowing a few little old ladies in the face, a price other riders have found worth paying), I can still take pleasure looking down the car at those privileged to sit, and peer over their shoulders to see what they're reading. I can invent games, awarding points for the number of Stieg Larssons in attendance. My heart always jumps a little when I see one of my abiding loves, like Jane Eyre. Some people read their morning prayers on the Metro, in English, Arabic or Hebrew. In my non-Istoria job, I work in media and public relations--and in Washington, DC, it's always interesting to see what paper or magazine someone chooses to read.

Once, when I was a teenager and my family took a trip to the beach together, my mom (Istoria co-founder Libby Sternberg) beckoned to me conspiratorially. She whispered to me, "I really want to find out what that woman over there is reading. Just walk by and see if you can see the cover." For us, book-spying was a fun beach activity, like volleyball or boogie-boarding. I mean, all those people, all those books! Think of all the quirky things people decide to read on the beach when they finally cut loose from the work world and get down to what really entertains them. Book-watching is just a subset of people-watching. That day, after making several unsuccessful, nonchalant circuits around the other family, I finally walked up to the woman my mom had pointed out and asked, "What are you reading? My mom and I are dying to know." She answered with an enormous smile.

Book-spying can bring people together. If the mp3-player revolution isolated people in public places, encapsulating them in the bubble of their earbuds, book-spying gives us the chance to learn something about each other again. In the movie 500 Days of Summer, Zoe Dechanel's character talks about the seredipity of meeting the man she fell in love with: "What if I hadn't gone to that coffee shop that day? What if I hadn't been reading Dorian Gray, or he hadn't noticed?"

Kindle-bashers and other critics of eReaders claim that eReaders will do to book-spying what mp3 players did to music-listeners in public places: isolate us further, deny the opportunity for that glimpse into someone else's tastes before meeting them. These critics clearly have little dexterity. eReaders may not display a cover on the outside of the device to show the world what you're reading, but a surreptitious glance can often reveal the title on the screen's header. I have happily been both the agent and subject of Kindle-peering. I've even struck up Metro conversations as a result of Kindle-peering. In fact, Kindle-peering adds an extra layer of challenge that many veteran book-spies will find intriguing. After all, any amateur bookspy can snatch a glance at a paperback cover held up for the world to see. Finding out what that cute girl in the coffee shop is reading on her Kindle might involve actually buying her a drink and talking to her.

Post a comment here and tell your favorite book-spying or Kindle-peering story. Be sure to leave your email address, and you'll get a free coupon for one download from Istoria Books!


  1. Love that essay, Hannah! And I agree. I love seeing what people are reading, and now I can add to that, how they are reading. That says something too: the library book, the beat-up paperback, the shiny new hardcover, the kindle. Love it.

  2. I always look to see what others are reading as well - I'm a mystery fan, but I enjoy seeing the wide variety of books that folks are reading, especially when traveling.

    pennyt at hotmail dot com

  3. My favorite book spying story took place in Russia, where I asked a woman in Moscow for directions. She noticed me peering at a paperback she was carrying and said, "Is mystery book." When I told her I was a writer, she was delighted and said ,"We Russians love mysteries, but not enough printed in Russian."

    If I'm luck, someday my book The Last Matryoshka--which was edited by Libby Steinberg for Five Star/Cengage!--will be printed in Cyrillic!

  4. Great stories, all! Susanne, I know - you can often tell not just what a person is reading, but how much they love it - not just how beat-up the book is, but how they handle it. Penny: finding out what people read when they travel is the best! It's just like getting to know what they're like on vacation. Joyce: what a thrill. Here's to international editions! Enjoy your eBooks, ladies :)