Before I even knew what 50 Shades of Grey was, one of my friends said this to me: “Ohmygosh. I love when I see girls reading 50 Shades on the train into the city. Don’t they know you’re not supposed to do that?” Naturally, at this juncture, I was curious about said book and perused on my search engine of choice. And I understood. I understood both why this was a big seller already and also why it was something some people thought other people should be embarrassed about reading in a public place—like a commuter train.
It was shortly after this research moment that I began to see many women in many public places reading this E.L. James book. Again, I can understand the appeal. However, I also understood the apprehensive attitude of my friend and others. When I saw, for instance, the hostess at the very upscale restaurant I’m (still) working at reading the book at the hostess stand during a slow night I also felt the, “Ohmygosh, doesn’t she know she shouldn’t be doing that,” vibe. Then, after, I felt bad about it. Why do I care what she’s reading and where? Isn’t it more important that she likes to read? Isn’t this reactionist, authoritarian opinion just shy of book-burning? Hadn’t Ray Bradbury (and my 8th grade English teacher) taught me better than that? Is this the perfect moment to quote Ray Bradbury? I think it is. Mr. Bradbury said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
Therefore, let her read 50 Shades of Grey in the hostess stand, in the hall, on the train, in a box, with a fox…you’re picking up what I’m putting down, I’m sure.
I feel like this is not a new problem. Romance novels are still made fun of, but at least a woman doesn’t (or, really, shouldn’t) have to hide them in fear. It’s probably not even new that we be overly concerned about what a person is reading right in front of us (and others) and a little ride on public transport. Probably just as long as we’ve had commuter trains (probably passenger trains in general), there have been books on trains. I imagine it can’t have taken very long for someone riding on a train to say, “Oh look, this is a great time to get some reading done.” Therefore, I’m going to go ahead and say we’ve probably always also had books that were considered “no-no’s” as the train chugged down the tracks.
Admittedly, I have still not yet read 50 Shades of Grey, so I will be neither condemning it, nor imploring you to rush out and read it if you also have not yet. I’m just using it as an example (I haven’t read it for numerous and ranging reasons, including: there are many other things I have longed to have enough time to read for much longer, I can’t bring myself to actually buy the book—hence this column, and additional disappointment in myself, besides the disappointment described previously above—and I’m just not ready to give it a fair reading. I’m just going to be positively full of judgment if I start reading it now…and it has nothing to do with me not thinking it’s fit for you to read on a train).
I have, however, read other books that were slapped with similar don’t-you-dare-read-that-on-the-train-you-good-little-girl judgments. I’ve read Sons and Lovers and loved it (D.H. Lawrence and I had a pretty seriously thing going on for a long time). I’ve read Sister Carrie and feel no more impugned than before I read it. I even, gasp!, read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was even cautioned on the EXACT SAME don’t-read-this-on-the-train speech in a Season 1 episode of Mad Men (now, read this carefully and hear me yelling it at you: it always comes back to Mad Men!).
Why do we always have books on this list? While the world’s already full of books condemned because of their affronts to various religious organizations or because of their teachings of hate, violence, and bomb making (I’m OK if you don’t read these on my train…please don’t read these on my train), why are we so concerned with socially banning each other from reading about some harmless foreplay post-play, actual play (I’m still using “harmless” in this context even based on the graphic details I’ve been told about the action in 50 Shades by all the women I was vacationing with—I mean the literature is harmless, though maybe not acting it out yourselves in a reading comprehension exercise. Still not judging.)?
The good news is we have a new weapon in combating everyone and their mother turning their nose up and their eyes down about what book we’re thumbing through on the train: the kindle. See also: the nook, most smart phones, and iPad. For this reason alone the kindle etcl. is one of the more valuable inventions of the decade. It sure beats the old scheme of hiding the dirty book (or comic book) inside another bigger, more serious looking book—usually hardback, usually red with gold lettering. Also, usually the smutty book winds up showing somehow or someone catches you by asking you questions about the thermal physics book you’re not reading. Then the jig is up. I don’t know why these are the images in my head, but they are. So it’s best that you have your kindle now, if you have one. Everyone can just wonder what you’re reading or not care at all and lend their nosey attention to things like reversing global warming or creating a more efficient train time table. The world is good. Technology is helping us (Though, I still don’t have a kindle. There are reasons for this. Most of those are covered under these two headings: 1. I’m old fashioned, like to hold books, to smell books, and to write in the margins of books, and, 2. I’m trying to stop spending superfluous money and buy a house…yo. However, I am remarkably tempted to buy a kindle after thinking in many ways about how much easier it would make my life.).
Now, the only question that remains is this: if I buy a kindle, and you see me reading it on the train, are you going to assume I’m reading filthy books? Sub-questions: is this a way to get around the embarrassment of buying 50 Shades of Grey? Additional bonus question for two points: do you think I should read it already or stay away all together?