Years ago, I had my first «adult job» just before I completed my university degree. I moved out to a new city, started helping in whatever I could, slowly building my way up.
But as it happens with everyone, the jump to adulthood isn’t. There’s no single moment when one stops being a «child» and becomes an «adult»; there’s no certificate for it, no ceremony. The transition to adulthood is merely a spectrum of days with no clear beginning or end.
Back to my first job: I of course dragged several habits from my student days into the workplace. The most prominent in that office was that I kept a personal journal and a book in my desk at all times. The journal was —of course—disguised as the notebook all nine-to-fivers tend to keep to organize their nine-to-five days and so no one cared much about it. The book stuck out like a sore thumb.
All of my coworkers were older than me by a full decade at least. Most of them with long-term partnerships, spouses, kids and at least one divorce settlement in progress. Of course, all of them drove cars to and from work. I, on the other hand still had time to read on my commute because I had the luxury of not having to worry about looking at the road while on commute.[^1] This was when «smartphones» were only becoming a thing, the business types all had Blackberries and Twitter was still in its infancy. What was one to do during an hour-long commute?
The obvious answer was to either do nothing or to try and get distracted with whatever was at hand, and more often than not that meant a book or newspaper.[^2] I continued the routine I set while studying at university and settled for keeping a book on my person at all times.
The morning bus passengers really care only for one thing: to get to work on time. Anything that hinders that is a nuisance. Anything that doesn’t can get a pass. The queue at 7:45 AM cares not for what a stranger is reading, but for you to hurry up, pay and get in the car ASAP. The office, unfortunately, is full of people you meet up every day.
After a while, my reading habit became part of my office identity. No one else had a book on their desks, no one ever talked about books. I don’t mean this as judgment of my coworkers: just as I was the bookish one there was a cinephile, a party animal, a hopeless romantic… we all presented part of ourselves to the group and those slices of life became our identities. In every human group we are all seen as a fraction of our total selves, and this identity is often defined by others: what they see and what they perceive of us.
So I became the reader, the bookish one. Reading became part of who I was in their eyes. My books were part of my identity as much as my clothes. Suddenly, what I read became important—not to everyone of course, but important as an extension of my self.
This was a subtle but important shift, one that I didn’t realize until someone told me they were surprised: «I didn’t think you would read that».
Reading is political. But so is eating, singing and pretty much everything that involves other people. What books I buy, which authors I read, where and when I buy books, which quotes I share and where… It’s useless to argue for «keeping politics out of my [blank]» because more often than not these choices are tied to a social and economical context. Buying the latest bestseller at the trendy library is not the same as buying second hand books from the pop-and-mom library around the corner.
What we read is informed and influenced by our political compass, academic background, taste in fiction and non-fiction, familial values and preferences, friendships, religious and spiritual beliefs, morals, ideals, availability of titles and a very long et cetera.
This person was surprised because they thought I was «smart enough to not believe those lies». They proceeded to recommend me another book, highly praised by a news anchor or some other media personality. They assured me it was truthful. They told me they hadn’t yet read it.
I smiled back and told them I’d consider it. Fortunately for me, this person left the company shortly after and I never had to explain why I would never even buy that book, let alone read it. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t the last time I was suggested other books on the basis that I was reading something «wrong».
I haven’t worked in a traditional company since. Everywhere I’ve worked people tend to see my books as my own business, while also acknowledging me as a fellow reader. We’ve been able to discuss books at length, without moral judgment on what exactly we’re reading and why. That was the only time I had a «normal» job, and it was the only time I’ve been judged by my reading material.
It might be a coincidence. I hope it was a coincidence.
In any case, it was a good lesson. What other people think of you and your books says more about them than about you. There was a time when I’d hide my books. Now I realize that most times no one cares, and anyone who wishes to discuss books will—generally speaking—be transparent to their intent. They can come and inquire on genres and taste and favorite quotes. A welcome conversation.
They could come judging me on what kind of books are on my desk. In that case I’ll smile and carry on.
[^1]: Some would say that it’s no luxury to share a vehicle with other people, to have to wait for a bus, to have to walk to and from bus stops. That of course depends entirely on what one values in life. Some would say that’s the excuse a poor person would give to justify their mediocrity and inability to pull up one’s bootstraps. I’m sure you can guess my general reply to such claims.
[^2]: Funny thing is, reading a newspaper was often the sign of someone being rude—intentionally or not —to your fellow passengers. Extending the whole, double-tabloid sheets usually means interfering in someone else’s personal space. We might have been packed like sardines in that bus, but still extending oneself was a social faux-pas.