Riding the bus downtown this morning, I saw a woman reading Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (you’ll have to be a Booklist Online subscriber to follow that link, I’m afraid). The woman, wearing a turquoise knit pant suit, sneakers, purple glasses, and gold jewelry, had a tight perm and a pursed-lips expression that reminded me of Bruce McCulloch doing drag in Kids in the Hall.
And I had a very unkind thought. The image on the cover of the book was of a Chinese fan, and seeing this Bruce McCulloch impersonator losing herself in an intricate and graceful tale of nineteenth-century China just seemed so…incongruous, like a linebacker holding a tiny book of poems.
And then I had another thought. Although I was taking my son to daycare, and not reading a book, the woman could just as easily have seen me reading something like, oh, say, Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheel Man. And she could have thought, Oh, how pathetic, another pasty-faced office geek pretending he’s a bad guy. That bulge under his jacket isn’t a gun, it’s a Pocket PC.
Thank you, moralizing voice in my head. I guess the point is that, aside from one guy I know who would probably claim he only reads for intellectual stimulation, we all-even book reviewers-read to escape. And we all probably imagine ourselves as having a unique relationship with the material that means we own it and other people our tourists.
In 1983, when I was 14 years old, I joined a punk band called Dissent. I loved punk rock, loved the fact that we hated everything that everyone else loved. Rebellion is an important part of growing up (and shouldn’t be entirely abandoned in adulthood, either). But punk rock-and later, “indie rock”-soured for me because it felt like we were spending less time writing songs about nuclear bombs and more time deciding who was a punk and who was a “poser.” Our desire to stand outside the mainstream was so strong that we were afraid to let anyone stand with us.
Sometimes, as a reader, our desire to identify with a book or a writer is so strong that we are afraid to allow that anyone else gets it. Not that I’m a fan of Lisa See, but in a way, I think I had a punk rock moment this morning.