So I’m riding the stationary bike at the gym the other day, listening to Django Reinhardt and reading Virginia Woolf, and it occurs to me that I could very easily be taken for a pretentious twat.
I do not believe myself to be a pretentious twat, but I have to admit that there could be reasonable grounds for that assumption. I am terribly self-conscious about my public literary consumption. If I know that I am going to be reading in a setting where I might be seen – the gym, for instance, or a city bus – I take care to choose a book that will reflect well on my taste.
Yes, I’m the guy on the train with his nose buried in William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay or Robertson Davies’ Fifth-Business. I don't think these choices are genuinely pretentious because these are the kind of novels and authors that I genuinely enjoy. If you see me poring through Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, it’s not because I want to show off my highbrow tastes. It’s because I want to see if Cather’s lesser-known work lives up to the spare beauty of My Antonia. (Answer in this case: not so much.)
Still, though, I worry that my attempts at keeping up appearances sometimes get the better of me. I read Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon a few years back - certainly no great work of literature, but quite enjoyable and eminently readable. Surely there’s nothing wrong with devoting a summer’s week to the overwritten antics of Hannibal Lecter and friends, right? And yet I only dared crack the pages of Red Dragon while hidden away in my apartment, safe from the leering eyes of strangers. On my lunch breaks at work, I substituted Knut Hamsun’s far more cerebral Hunger.
Now how likely is it that anyone wandering past the bench outside PJ’s Coffee & Tea on
Quite a lot, apparently. The cold, weird fact is that I have consistently allowed a mythical notion of public opinion to impact my choice of reading material. It goes at least as far back as middle school, where I scoffed at teachers’ suggestions of Gary Paulsen and Judy Blume and instead immersed myself in Ken Kesey and Ernest Hemingway. Sure, the themes these authors dealt with far outstripped my sheltered, pre-teen psyche, but I genuinely enjoyed their stories. Just as important, they fed my burgeoning sense of superiority over my less advanced peers. Hm… In hindsight, that sounds like the thought process of a pretentious twat.
It has its down sides, this elitism of mine. At age 30, I’ve never read a book by Stephen King, John Grisham, Michael Crichton or most of my era’s other best-selling authors. I’m left out of conversations about The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner, just because I can’t bear to be seen reading a book that’s available at my local Starbucks. I was recently mildly embarrassed to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the gym. You’d think I’d have no worries about being spotted with a universally acknowledged masterpiece by one of my favorite novelists of all time, but I feared I’d be taken for a bandwagon-jumper who’d picked the book up because of press coverage and the brooding photo of Viggo Mortenson on the cover. At least my edition didn’t have the dreaded Oprah seal of approval.
I acknowledge that I have a problem. I am fully aware that this is neither a normal nor a rational handling of my literary life. But I can’t see myself changing anytime soon. In fact, I’m not sure that I want to. The world needs pretentious twats like me, if only to set a bad example. And I’m working my way through some phenomenal books, so it’s hard for me to feel too bad.
So if you spot a guy at your local gym pedaling furiously with To the Lighthouse propped up in his sweaty palm, that might be me. It’s probably best if you just ignore me. I don’t need the encouragement.