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    You’re wrong about reading in bars.

    James Folta

    April 12, 2024, 1:55pm

    I like to think of online discourse as a neverending bar crawl. A roving and insatiable crowd plods around, periodically busting in on the unsuspecting to cheer, boo, and brawl to exhaustion, and then parade off to the next destination. It’s fun, it’s raucous, it’s insufferable.

    Every so often, the crowd bursts in on “reading in bars.” Most recently, someone was accused of being a “pick me” for having a book open while drinking. Often these posts feel like some extremely vintage sexism—a woman holding a book is an obvious and immediately diagnosable symptom of hysteria—but they also make me wonder if we’ve taken our assumptions about what reading is in a weird direction.

    These posts revolve around the premise that someone has a book out not because they’re reading, but because they’re knowingly performing something else. The viral “pick me pick me!” post has a caption in quotation marks, imagining dialogue and a motivation for a behavior that wasn’t taken at face value. To be charitable, maybe the judgment is coming from a place of assuming that people are using bars incorrectly: bars are for drinking and meeting people, not reading.

    Or maybe it’s the location, and people assume that everything you do in a bar is performed. Searching for “reading in bars” immediately turned up a lot of Reddit threads explaining how reading at a bar is a dating hack, even getting so granular as to recommend varying genres to attract different people—apparently “driven” people will approach you if you have a marketing book.

    What I don’t like about this is that it invites a contagious self-consciousness. When I lived in San Francisco, I heard a lot about the “Singles Safeway,” a grocery store with a reputation as a spot to find dates. There’s nothing wrong with picking someone up in the produce aisle, but the knowledge of the horny grocery store became a little too self-fulfilling. Should I avoid the Singles Safeway because I just started seeing someone? Am I presentable enough to pop in? Is that person checking me out or am I standing in the way of the good mustards?

    What happens when you feel like everyone else is talking about reading at bars? It’s hard to avoid seeing yourself through the Eye of the Discourse, and play into the assumption the reading is inherently performative.

    Personally, I think reading at bars rocks, because I like books and I like having a drink. And there aren’t a lot of options for places to go out, especially at night, and especially if you don’t want to spend a bunch of money. Maybe other countries have figured this out, but if I want a solitary night with a book, a bar is often the best bet.

    The mindset that slots reading solely as a public act of brand maintenance or a coded invitation to some other interaction is too limiting. And look, if you meet someone over a book, great! If you’re killing time while waiting for someone, great! If you’re trying to be mysterious, that’s great too. But people in public aren’t riddles for you to solve, and not everyone reading at a bar is trying to tell you something.

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