Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.
The Last Book by Reinier Gerritsen (photographer); introductory essay by Boris Kachka. Published in 2014.
Boris Kachka, in the introduction of The Last Book discusses futurist Negroponte’s prediction that the printed book will disappear by 2015. Though this prediction has not been realised, ebooks have indeed impacted the way we read. On transport, we get fewer glimpses at a stranger’s individual taste. Where print books were a window to a person’s self, tablets and ereaders, Kachka says, now act as a mirror. Phototgrapher Reinier Gerritsen observed that the incidence of people reading on trains was diminishing so he wanted to document the reading that was still being undertaken on transport.
Gerritsen’s photographs of commuters with their print reading choices depict commuters whose reading choices are broad. There are classics, bestsellers, eclectic and translated titles, children’s books, fiction and nonfiction. There are more male than female authors and more male than female commuters represented in this book.
With the exception of several women reading E L James (which, in my opinion, are not strict romances anyway), there was an evident lack of romance books. Not only were there none of the usual big romance names but there also were no books that were instantly recognisable as romance due to genre cover conventions. There were no covers with flowing ballgowns, cocktail dresses, wedding flowers, clinches, and definitely no Mills and Boon covers. There were however, some Sophie Kinsella readers and, dammit there were two Nicholas Sparks novels too (though I do not consider him to be a romance author). There were some fantasy, scifi and horror titles evident and there was plenty of crime so genre novels are represented. (As an aside, there was not a single Australian author). I feel that Gerritsen has been equitable in the representation of books and readers and that the lack of romance fiction could point to the usual issues of reader shame and reading in secret, and that most people would rather not be seen publicly reading materials that are coded “female” that often accompanies the romance reader. Romance reading still remains hidden, romance fiction is rarely a window that readers want to reveal to the world. It remains, as Kachka would say, a mirror – romance is publicly read on a tablet and reflected back into the reader’s heart and mind. I feel that the tablet acts, not only as a mirror, but as a shield protecting the romance reader from the judgement of others. This photoessay worked as a reminder to me that romance fiction is still not part of the literary conversation nor is it the type of books that one would read on public transport.
Putting aside my (unsurprised) romance fiction disappointment, as a whole I really enjoyed this book having now read through it three and four times over. As a chronicler of reading, Gerritsen’s photography clearly captures the emotions of the reader commuter. The readers’ books, whether they are a window or a mirror or a shield, are an extension of their body, their reading becoming part of their physicality and their personal bubble. I love that the only captions used to describe each photograph is the name of the author being read. With his photography, Gerritsen also captures the emotions and glances of the other non-reading commuters alongside the reader. I too am a regular commuter. I occasionally read if I am travelling for over half an hour. Otherwise, I become an observer of those around me and I too I watch readers and the way they hold their books and tablets. Reading through this excellent book, I felt as though I was the one sitting on the train carriage being one of the observers of readers.
The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.