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How to Keep What You Are Reading Secret

Is there anything more annoying than being interrupted with the question “hey, what are you reading?” while you are engrossed in a book? Is there anything more frustrating than feeling the eyes of others scanning you, trying to see the cover of the book you are holding? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions than congratulations, you must lead a life that is low on annoyances and frustrations.

Nevertheless, even if there are things that are more annoying and frustrating than the aforementioned situations, they can still be quite bothersome. Why do other people need to know what you are reading? Why do they care? Why don’t they mind their own business? Why don’t they get their own book to read? These are not the type of questions that cannot be answered without doing detailed psychological analysis of the people bothering you. And yet, there is nothing particularly odd about you wanting to keep your reading habits to yourself. Perhaps you are a very private person. Perhaps you are embarrassed by what you are reading. Perhaps you are reading this book for research purposes but you worry that people will assume the worst of you if they see what you are reading. Perhaps you are reading a book with a cover design that gives people the wrong impression of what the book is actually about. Or perhaps [enter your own reason for not wanting people to know what you are reading here]. In order to assist you in being able to keep your reading habits private, we humbly offer the following suggestions.

1. Do not read books

Let us begin by getting the obvious solution out of the way. And while this may literally be a solution to this literary conundrum, it is a bad solution. Nevertheless, this must be mentioned for the sake of honesty and transparency. After all, if you want to ensure that nobody knows what book you are reading, surely one surefire strategy to accomplish this is to not be reading anything. While, again – for the sake of honesty, it should be acknowledged that this strategy does actually work, it should also be noted that this strategy is both ridiculous and boring. As the rest of this list makes clear there are numerous tactics one can pursue to ensure that one’s reading habits are kept private without having to resort to such drastic (and foolish) pursuits as not reading books at all. This has been mentioned so that none could accuse this list of missing this strategy, but the compiler of this list does not recommend or endorse this tactic.

2. Tell No One

If you are truly intending to keep others from knowing what you are reading you will need to consign yourself to not telling anybody what you are reading. No discussions! No book groups! No idle chit-chat! Nothing! Tell no one! This can present quite the challenge, but it must be taken seriously if you are committed to keeping your reading habits private. For if you should tell just one person, who is to say how many other people they will tell? They might even broadcast it on social media so that numerous people will find out what it is that you are reading! They might set up a website called “What [your name] is Reading”! If you are committed to not talking about books, you will need to become a skilled conversationalist, capable of steering all discussions away from the topic of books and towards innocuous subjects that you feel are more acceptable (consider: the weather). Further difficulties arise with this step depending on the degree to which you want to truly ensure that absolutely nobody knows what you are reading. These further difficulties take the form of booksellers and libraries (small or large) – as the staff of such organizations may conclude based on what you are buying or borrowing what it is that you are planning on reading next. Thus, make sure that you do not drop any hints (or say anything beyond the basic pleasantries such as “please” and “thank you”), and you might consider buying/borrowing books in quantities of at least two – this way there will always be some question as to which of these books you are going to read next. Granted, sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where you have to reply to a question as to what you are reading. And in that case you may want to…

3. Lie

When somebody asks you: “what are you reading?” You are not required to answer truthfully. Yes, there are some people out there who live by very strict moral codes whereby lying is treated as unethical. But if you are the type of person who believes that a small lie is periodically acceptable (in other words: most people), this may just be the tactic for you. If somebody asks what you are reading: just lie to them. Granted, it is not quite as simple as that sounds. After all, you never know when some interloper will approach you and ask: “what are you reading?” You could be caught totally unprepared! Flabbergasted in such a situation you might not be prepared to answer this question in a truth-bending manner, and thus you may find yourself (gadzooks!) actually telling this person what you are reading! All of which is to say: the key to successfully using this tactic is to be prepared. In your mind compose a, short, list of several books and commit this list to memory – it is up to you whether or not you want the books on the list to be real books or fake books. While it may seem more entertaining to fill this list with books that do not actually exist, doing so may result in your interrogator pressing forward with their inquisition if they realize that the book title you’ve given them is for a book that does not actually exist. For this tactic to work you’ll want to offer the title of a book which sounds realistic, but not so interesting that you’ll be forced to discuss the book (which you are not actually reading). Actually, to be perfectly frank, this is a risky path to walk. Proceed down it at your own risk.

4. Make a cover for your book

Numerous school-aged children (and by extension, the parents of school-aged children) have had the experience of having to make a “cover” for an assigned textbook. Usually the reasons for making such a cover are explained as twofold: first, it protects the actual cover of the book from being damaged; second, it helps ensure that students do not mix their copy of a book with their peers’ copies. And yet there is a serious risk embedded in this seeming mundane endeavor – for it has been known to happen that on occasions students grab the wrong book before going to class or heading home, and in such cases one often hears an explanation that revolves around the fact that the student did not realize which book they were grabbing. While one should have a measure of sympathy for stressed students who fall victim to such a mix up, their predicament can serve as an important inspiration for those hoping to keep others from knowing what they are reading. Simply construct a new book jacket for your book! By doing this you will safely protect the cover of your book from prying eyes. The following types of material all make excellent book jackets (note – some assembly may be required):

  • Brown paper shopping bags;
  • Wrapping paper;
  • Old calendars;
  • Actual jackets;
  • Newspapers;
  • Posters you would otherwise discard;
  • Sandpaper with the scratchy side facing away from the book;
  • Book jackets from other books (excellent for deception!).

The following types of material do not make excellent book jackets:

  • Wet towels;
  • Rare paintings;
  • Ancient documents;
  • Sandpaper with the scratchy side facing toward the book;
  • Anything which says “ask me what I’m reading!” on it;
  • Treasure maps;
  • The book’s actual dust jacket.

5. Read e-books

At first this seems like an elegant, and thoroughly modern, solution to the problem. If you are worried about people craning their necks to scrutinize the cover of the book you are reading, why not make it so there is no cover for them to scrutinize? While e-readers (once upon a time) were strange and exotic things to see (and therefore invited more, not less, attention), today they have become fairly commonplace. And when a person sees you reading a book on your e-reader (or reading an e-book on your smart phone) that person will have no idea what you are reading. And yet, if you genuinely want to keep your selections of reading secret it is necessary to think this through in greater detail. True, an e-reader may keep the people in your immediate vicinity from knowing what you are reading – but your reading selection is in actuality far from secret! Many an e-reader, and many an e-book app, come from large corporations – and these corporate entities are well aware of what you are reading. They even know what page you are on! They even know how many times you flipped back to that one page to re-read it (the shame, the shame)! They even know how you actually gave up on reading that one book after only fifteen percent of it! At this point those who are avid devotees of encryption might chime in by pointing out that there are less leaky apps to use and places to download e-books other than from the websites of major corporations. Granted, the main point here is simply to highlight that if you do not want others to know what you are reading – and you are defining “others” broadly – reading e-books may not be quite the solution you had sought.

6. Listen to Audio Books

One way to ensure that nobody will wonder what book you are paging through is for you to not be paging through a book. And yet there is a way for you to stand there (or sit there, or walk there, or…etc…) enjoying a book without actually holding a physical book (or e-reader)! What is being referred to here is the type of book you listen to, the humble audio book. Before going any further it should be acknowledged that for an audio book to preserve your privacy you need to be listening to it on your headphones (or in a private setting). If you are walking down the street with a boom box and it is blasting an audio book than people will be able to figure out what book you are reading/listening to – and even in if they cannot immediately discern what the exact book is they will still be able to conclude that you are listening to an audio book. But, if you are listening to an audio book on your headphones – who is to know what you are listening to? Indeed, most people observing you might assume that you are actually listening to music, or any number of other things. Nevertheless, there are two important caveats worth mentioning: firstly, listening to audio books is somewhat similar to reading e-books (see: suggestion 5), if you have downloaded your audio book from the website of a major corporation it stands to reason that its algorithms know full well what you are listening to; secondly, although there are many (many, many) audio books out there for you to listen to, it may be (alas) that the book you most want to enjoy is not available on audio book – and thus you may find that your options are somewhat limited. Also, if you are listening to an audio book you will be hearing that book read to you by some unseen individual and you will never be able to fully shake your suspicion that they know you are listening. They know! They know! Actually, they probably don’t.

7. Read in a Private Place

If you are reading a book (or even listening to a book) in the presence of other people you are always going to run the risk of being bothered by somebody curious to know what you are reading. Therefore, you might consider reading in private locations where you are less likely to be disturbed. The following locations are all worth considering:

  • Your bedroom (assuming you live alone);
  • Your office (assuming you work alone);
  • In your subterranean lair;
  • The gym (assuming you are the only person who ever goes to your gym);
  • In the privacy of your coffin because you are actually a vampire;
  • Read in the forest (perhaps atop a red plaid blanket);
  • The International Space Station (assuming you are stationed there alone);
  • The desert island on which you are marooned;
  • On top of a mountain;
  • In haunted ruins that tourists dare not enter;
  • Your parked car (assuming you have a car);
  • At the bottom of the sea.

Granted, some of these locations may just lead you to conclude that you should…

8. Become a Hermit

The problem being discussed herein could be described as an interpersonal problem. Wanting to keep other people from knowing what you are reading assumes that there are other people around who could potentially be interested in knowing what you are reading. Thus, one rather drastic solution is to make sure that there are no other people around you. Emphasis on the “no other people” part. If you retreat to some unknown hideaway (a cave, a cabin in the woods, a mountaintop, the depths of a forbidden jungle) where there are no other humans to be found you will not need to worry about any of the aforementioned interlopers trying to find out what you are reading. You will actually be safe from most concerns that are related to interpersonal issues – such is one of the benefits of solitude. Naturally, there are some significant downsides to this: you may get very lonely, and if you are living out in some unknown location it will likely be very difficult for you to get more books once you have finished all of the ones you brought with you when you retreated from civilization. Furthermore, this tactic may backfire on you spectacularly. After you take up the hermetic lifestyle it is always possible that some legend will be generated in your wake – people will tell tales of the wise hermit who lives in solitude, reading all day. Inspired by these stories, intrepid seekers of life’s mysteries may seek you out, specifically for the purpose of learning what it is that you have gleaned from all of your cloistered reading that has allowed you to become so wise and mysterious. Do not such unwanted guests realize that the reason you became a hermit in the first place was so you would be free from being bothered by such people!? Yeesh! Perhaps, becoming a hermit is not the wisest strategy. Granted, one can always become a partial hermit – choosing only to read in solitude – but then what will you do while waiting for the train?

9. Try not to worry about it

In truth, most people probably don’t really care that much about what you’re reading.

Go ahead, keep telling yourself that.

More Advice of Questionable Merit!

How to Sleep in a Library

How to Organize Your Library

How not to Ruin Books

How not to be Bothered While Working in a Library

Things I Learned in My First Semester of Teaching Undergraduates

[Image note – the painting at the top of this post is Gyula Benczúr’s “Woman Reading in a Forest.” This image is in the public domain.]


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

8 comments on “How to Keep What You Are Reading Secret

  1. taxpayer
    February 1, 2016

    Reading e-books can be quite private if one reads pdf’s. Of course it doesn’t work with e-books licensed from Amazon or borrowed from the government library, but agency publications, academic papers, public domain or cc-licensed works, and lots of other documents — most of the things I actually want to read — can be downloaded anonymously and read, or not read, privately.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2016 by in Big Brother, Books, Humor, Librarianship, Libraries, Privacy, Surveillance and tagged , , , , .

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