What Was Mr. Bennet Reading?

“Books—oh no! I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”
“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject.”
~ Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

As a family, we watch Simon Langton’s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. We all have our favorite characters and favorite scenes, and bits of dialogue frequently crop up in our conversations.

Some of us even have our favorite nagging P&P question—well, at least I do, and my family knows it well: “What is he reading?” I say it out loud whenever Mr. Bennet is depicted in his library, head inclined, book in hand—I can’t help it. I know he’s a fictional character, and the books that the celluloid Mr. Bennet (Benjamin Whitrow) is holding in those scenes are props—possibly not even real books. Certainly there are no words discernable on their spines, no visible titles on the covers (I’ve checked), and speculation is largely futile. Nonetheless, my eyes laser in to check anyway, even after umpteen viewings. It’s literally (pun intended) automatic.

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Of course, I’m prone to the same behavior in public as well. If someone is reading a book—on a park bench, in a hamburger joint, on a bus—I’ll crane my neck to glimpse the title. It can be awkward, I admit, and it probably comes across as terribly nosey—maybe it is. However, unless the reader has elected to shield his chosen volume (or has chosen to read it on an e-gizmo, God forbid), its title—and any concomitant speculative insight into the individual reading it—is up for grabs. Such occasions are opportunities to connect with strangers, however transitory. They might remain anonymous, or they might lead to an actual interaction, but they always represent an extension of literary community, an often invisible stab at solidarity with another human being who reads physical books.

That’s why I was so delighted to stumble across The Last Book (2014) by Reinier Gerritsen. The title jumped out at me while browsing our library’s sale shelf—was it a prediction? a declaration?—and I had to grab it. Contrary to my fears, it was in fact a celebration of the physical book, primarily through images. Gerritsen had spent some years photographing New York subway readers and their selected volumes.

What a treasure, what a find—and for only a buck! Here was a kindred spirit to be sure.

Gerritsen’s photos are intimate. His readers frown, smile, and wince, their up-close expressions as accessible as the books they’re holding. And those books—what a grand, hurly-burly selection, from Augustine and Chaucer to Doug Adams and David Byrne.

As I glanced through Gerritsen’s montage, I was transported back to my own subway days, both in NYC and Chicago. Traveling to and from work or wherever, I routinely scanned what my fellow passengers were perusing—their newspapers, their magazines, but especially their hardcover texts and ragged paperbacks. I suppose I was aware that they were scanning what I was reading as well, but it didn’t bother me. Indeed, in my limited urban experience, I’d found it to be a plus and a possibility.

Like the time I spent the night in Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission and leafed through Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian (1974) before lights out. The night clerk caught the title, an eyebrow went up, and he asked me about it. At the time, I was a desperate evangelical, clinging to the last shreds of my childhood faith, and I welcomed the chance to share notes with another seeker. So it was that my unobstructed dipping into Küng (of all people) led to a remarkable, serendipitous midnight chat about faith, conversion, and the Catholic Church.

As if Gerritsen’s chronicle of commuter literacy weren’t treasure enough, the book’s introductory essays underscore the project’s vitality and bolstered my conviction that I was not alone in my bookish surveillance. Boris Kachka writes in a foreword that any book’s “words face the reader, but its title is exposed to the world. It’s not a mirror, but a window.” Kachka expands on this idea when he writes that a book title “offers a clue, a window into another’s thoughts, the dangerous possibility of a chance encounter.”

He also gently notes that you “can’t say the same about an e-book.” No condemnation, no judging. Just a simple articulation of reality. Something communal and valuable is lost when people eschew traditional books.

That’s a terrible loss, and it’s one that seems to be unavoidable. Gerritsen himself writes in his introduction that “the sight of people reading the Bible, Bukowski, or Roth—each publicly displayed book jacket serving as a mini manifesto of individual taste—is disappearing.” Doesn’t that make you sad?

If it doesn’t, track down Gerritsen’s book and flip through the pages. Ponder how many times you’ve struck up conversations with people who were reading something that looked interesting and which you subsequently took up yourself—with pleasure. Or how about coming across a stranger absorbed by a novel that fundamentally altered your take on things—a story that rerouted your whole life’s trajectory. Did you say something? Did it remind you of the crisis it got you through? And weren’t glad for the reminder?

Gerritsen’s photos are also available online if your library’s copy is checked out (or it has already been yanked and put on the sale shelf). A word of caution, however: Be sure to put his name in the search bar, or else go to Slate’s judicious sampling here. If you simply Google “subway” and “books,” you’ll end up with a host of eye-popping images produced by comedian Scott Rogowsky and his friends. Scott is known for veiling ordinary books (sample: “The actual book I was reading was the autobiography of Madeleine Albright”) with outrageous replacement covers and then taking them underground. The reactions of fellow riders are hilarious, although be warned that the majority of his fake titles are not family fare—PG-13, at least, and R in some cases.

Still, Rogowsky’s comic experiment is further proof (if proof is needed) that I’m not alone in my habit of observing other readers and their books, and that the silent networking they promote, whether comic or sublime, will survive the digital age.


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