No one has ever sat down at a table in a cafe with a book and not hoped.
A book carried in public can say more about us than the clothes we wear, or the things we carry. It is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the private self: the self we desperately want to share with another person; someone who will organically and instinctively understand us. It's an honest and silent gesture that expresses our desire to be known.
This is because reading a book is something that takes place privately, requiring time, space, and attention that is dedicated solely to the intimacy between reader and book. To take that experience into a public place puts you into a dimension of surprising vulnerability, where you are partially sharing some part of yourself with a stranger that you hope to meet.
That hope is a beautiful thing because it opens us up to possibilities, just as surely as a book does.
As we lose ourselves in our books, we hold fast to this trembling wish for a moment of mutual recognition in someone. We hope to look up and find someone staring at us, reading past our dust jackets, with a question forming on their lips.
Every seduction begins with one of two things: a question or a confession. A book is a confession that longs for a question.
What are you reading? isn't quite as good as what do you think of it? But it will do. May I join you? would be the next logical step. We'd pretend to be preoccupied, but pleasantly surprised, all the while exulting in the newness, the novelty, the joyous unexpectedness of being seen.
We imagine that this perfect stranger might come over, pull out a chair (with the sound of wooden legs scratching the floor), and sit down at our lopsided table and give us a reason to put our book down, cover facing up, glossy in library cellophane or bookstore dust or smelling like an airport newsstand.
Books, like people, ask for readers, not audiences.
An audience participates in something together, all at once. Movies have audiences, and though movies aspire to the intimacy of books, screenwriters are tasked less with communicating to the audience than they are to a director.
A great movie will leave you talking about it. A great book will stun you into silence; as though you've had a conversation with someone who seems to know everything about you after just one meeting. We embed our favorite books with our hopes. We see them as mirrors reflecting the parts of us that we don't feel are always seen so clearly.
That is the experience we hope for with another person.
In that sense, the books we carry are as much icons and amulets as they are tokens and signs. We have the idea that people who recognize them will also recognize us. This is true whether we're carrying a mass market paperback or a weathered volume with the pages falling out.
They are symbols of ourselves and they are expressions of desire: the desire to be known, to be seen, to be understood, to be read.