Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Reading People

I'm a people-watcher. As I ride the bus and metro every day to and from work, wander the halls of the Pentagon, or ponder what overpriced things to buy in stores, I enjoy looking at the other people and imagining their stories. Sometimes it's easy, because most people radiate clues about their likes and dislikes in terms of the music they listen to, the books they read, the way they dress, and the expressions on their faces.

Actually, more and more, the music and books count for less and less.

In an interesting article on Slate.com titled Judging a Girl By Her Cover, Mark Oppenheimer notes that books and music - two of our time-honored clues to people's likes and dislikes and two classic conversation starters, are slowly going away in an age of e-readers, iPads, and mp3 players.

When I go to a person's house for the first time, one of the first things I look for is the bookshelves. What does this person like to read? Knowing this allows me to form an idea of the individual's interests and suggests things we can talk about and ideas we can share. The same with music: looking at the spines of LPs (at least some of you remember those, don't you?) or the CDs lined up on the shelf told me what sorts of music the person liked, and that helped to establish shared interests and a basis for conversation. Even looking at how the books and music were arranged (alphabetical by author or artist, by genre, or - in the case of books - by size) tells you something about the person. And the amount of dust on particular books or discs told you something, too.

As Mr Oppenheimer says,

Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.

It's true...those clues are slowly going away. You can't look across the aisle of the bus and see the cover of a book, or the label on a CD being put into a player. There's less shared information that offers conversational openings. Lending books or CDs or DVDs used to be a sign of trust and friendship, a way to share ideas and establish links between ourselves. Borrowing a book or CD or DVD wasn't just about the borrowing, but about the returning - an excuse to see the other person again, and perhaps to share the ideas that arose from the use of the borrowed item.

Things are less and less tangible, and so are our opportunities for human interaction. It's sad, but it's the price of progress and convenience. When we travel, we can carry dozens of bulky books in a small, lightweight Kindle or an e-Reader or an iPad, and thousands of hours of music on an mp3 player that would otherwise require us to carry dozens and dozens of heavy CDs.

But we lose the smell and feel and heft of a real ink-on-paper book, and the pleasure of reading the liner notes that used to come with a CD or LP. And we lose the ability to look at the other person and say, "I read that book and really enjoyed it...how do you like it?"

It's easier, in a way, to read books and listen to music, but harder to read people and share ideas.

Something worth thinking about as you swipe pages across a screen, or listen placidly to the wash of digital music from your ear buds.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

I still like books best.

KathyA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KathyA said...

And while as individuals we can easily be bombarded with print material and music, it is now a totally private experience, to the point of shutting out the world with earphones. Interesting.
The only non-private act is the one that should be private where people talk aloud - usually very loudly - on their cell phones.

PS I'm one of those who needs the feel of the book in my hands.
PPS My shelves are upstairs in my office and arranged alphabetically, according to author. Just saying...

Anonymous said...

Real readers leave their books scattered around the house, often upside down to conveniently mark their place. Often they'll have 8 or 10 books in that condition, and in my house, 8 or 10 others scattered about near various comfortable chairs, just in case they get an urge to commune with ideas and observations. They are a despair to housekeepers.

But they sure do learn a lot. I suspect Bilbo is never more than 3 feet away from a partially read book.

He also is a very good observer of human behavior.

Eminence Grise

Melissa B. said...

Oh, but I truly believe that one can still judge a "book" by its cover. The way a person stands, speaks and looks out at the world still tells me oodles...

Edwin Frownfelter said...

Great post -- I think I'll click the "Share" button and pass it along. Oh, wait . . .

Raquel's World said...

Well I LOVE to read BOOKS. But I gave thought to what you're saying here about being able to tell about someone through their book choices. That's interesting because I tend to favor African American Literature. These books are filled with drama and sex. My life does contain a bit of both but I think if one viewed my selections without seeing me they would suppose I am black. You think? Or that I had some hot steamy ghetto love infused drama in my life. Neither is true. My music selection would have you lost. I like country, pop, R & B, with a tiny bit of rap. If I stumbled across that selection I would think that person is sooo well rounded.