The single life in a new town can be a lonely one.
I've spent some time sulking in the streets and wondering which of the faces I encounter I'll get to know one day. But I spend most of my time reading, partly to ward off tedium by engaging in the considerable drama of fictional characters. Regardless of how lonely I may sometimes feel, nothing is as dire as Billy Pilgrim coming unstuck in time, as Frodo protecting that problematic ring. These characters can be as engaging as real people but where real people will ignore me for lack of interest in what they see, book people haven't the capacity to do anything but ignore me. They're too tangled up in their own existence to look up and notice the giant human following their every move. Also, they're not real. This brings me enormous satisfaction.
But for the past few years I've used books as a device for meeting people, especially women. Great conversations can begin with the words, "Is that book any good?" Wonderful things can happen. I met a girl once in a New York bar while reading The Doors of Perception and yadda, yadda I haven't seen her since. It's a marvelous tool! They have proven effective conversation lubricant and, coupled with some red wine, you may find that a shared taste in books equates to similar personal philosophies. Chicks love that crap.
In cafes or on transit, I'll position my book in such way that other people will notice the cover and hopefully understand exactly the type of person I'm trying to be. Whether you realize it or not, the book that you choose to read in public will be used by people like me as signal of your internal character and we will use the dust jackets and author name to construct a definition of who you are. If you're reading Robinson Crusoe , you can't let go of the past. If you're reading Dan Brown, you haven't read another book before the one in your lap in 12 years. Fyodor Dostoevsky = melodramatic brooder. We can use this to gauge the depth of conversation should we start to use it. People should be impressed that I'm a quarter of the way through Gravity's Rainbow , though I have no idea what the bloody book is even about. These people will find me "hip," "cultured" and other adjectives prized by young people who have nothing better to think about.
Whistler's a different story all together. "Hip" is as meaningless a word as "blaffugla" and so it's no wonder that I'm single. There are some cultured people here but they tend not to use transit. The ones that do are usually more concerned about hurling their mortal selves over mountainsides than they are about Nabakov's wordplay. Very few people give a good goddamn what I'm reading except maybe my friends and even then interest passes quick. I'm desperate and frightened that I need to find a new gimmick to make people like me.
People have the tendency, and some more than others, to project onto complete strangers the qualities of ourselves we've experienced through works of art. Books in particular say wonders about who this person might be. The fantasies are endless but few Whistler people read in public and I find I have to construct back-stories for transit riders based solely on appearance. Everyone is from Australia, everyone is poor and I have no leeway into conversation.
So imagine my delight when I see a cute girl reading Tom Robbins on the bus. I imagine that she is the feminine version of myself. She reads Pitchfork obsessively and loves homemade perogies. I hold my own book up and lean against the window in such a way that she can see the front cover if she looks over. Maybe she'll like my face but this Michael Chabon dust jacket will surely win her over. I'll speak up, make a passing reference to Still Life With Woodpecker because she's reading it and, because we're identical in personality, she's absolutely smitten by it. The conversation will be smooth, insightful and as she gets off at her stop we promise to see each other again.
And before I've spoken a single word to this girl, we're eating popcorn together on my couch, shoulders touching and the loneliness that compelled the both of us to read in the first place will be locked away and hopefully forgotten for a little while at least.