I truly believe the airplane is one of the greatest inventions in history, especially given its ability to cut a 16-hour drive into a 3-hour flight. That being said, there is one thing I vehemently loathe about the process of flying: having to talk to other passengers. I can deal with security theatre, airline food, and gross bathrooms without even flinching. Even little Khaynynn kicking my seat for multiple hours while her dad substitutes screen time for actual parenting will usually only register as a slightly annoying experience. But, if I am stuck next to a chatty person, I will immediately start praying that the plane will veer into the nearest large body of water and end my suffering.
Unfortunately, I am often the type of person who strangers seem to enjoy talking to. I am not sure why this is, but it is a wholly unsuitable trait for me, an introvert, to possess. In order to combat this (and because most people are, in my estimation, better on the page than in person), I always travel with at least one book. I have found that avoiding eye contact is often an indicator to most people that I have no desire to talk to them. And what better way to circumvent eye contact than by burying your head in a book? None, that is until you are confronted with those who seem to think that someone who is reading desperately wants to make conversation about what book they’re reading.
Through the years, I have noticed that there are certain books that seem to attract unwanted attention more than they repel it. Here are some tips on how to select books that are less likely to elicit conversations from strangers.
Tip 1: Avoid anything ‘controversial’.
Some people assume that if they walk around with a copy of Mein Kampf, people will avoid them. This is an amateur mistake. Yes, most pleasant and polite people will avoid conversing with you if you seem like a psychopath. But, there is an ever-increasing chance that someone will see what you’re reading and decide that they need to try to recruit you for one of the 31 different flavors of White Supremacist hate groups that we currently have in the United States.
If you’re wondering if a book topic is ‘controversial’, consider what your ultra-conservative Uncle Steve would think if he saw you reading the book. If the title or cover would make him launch into a Fox Newsesque diatribe about why poverty is a myth because poor people have fridges, or how Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim/lizard man, maybe rethink it. People like Uncle Steve will have no compunction about telling you why you’re Wrong about a particular topic/subject matter.
Please note that this is not me telling you to avoid talking about social justice with difficult people. If you are in a safe, privileged position where you can call out the Uncle Steves in your life, do so. But, if you are traveling, this might not be the case. At a certain point, the line between ‘an annoying person is talking to me’ and ‘a potentially dangerous person is talking to me’ can blur.
Tip 2: Don’t select anything too popular.
If you’re going to read a book around chatty people, it’s best to pick something fairly esoteric. If you’re anything like me (and I assume you are, because of my astonishingly solipsistic worldview), you are now realizing that some of the books your teachers wanted you to read in high school were actually good. But even though you might suddenly develop a penchant for Depressing Russian Literature Where Everyone has Tuberculosis, I would advise against taking your copy of Crime and Punishment with you. The same is true for books that are or were immensely popular at one point, even if they’re not “Literature.”
When I was a youth, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Twilight were both immensely popular. I have read both of these books and my brain is still filled with far too much information about them. Even if I hadn’t read these books, however, I would avoid reading them in public. As hipster as it sounds, your best bet is to pick a book that people are unlikely to have heard of. As there are literally millions of books in the world, this shouldn’t be too daunting of a task. The reason I am suggesting an esoteric book, my sweet little dandelions, is because it will help discourage people from trying to bond with you. If the type of person who talks to people reading in public sees that you are reading something that they have read, it is likely that they will consider this Common Ground. In my experience, people who are like this assume that all strangers harbor a secret desire to be engaged in conversation in public settings, but are too shy or socially inept to initiate it. Unfortunately, people who think this are obsessed with Common Ground and will talk at you about it for the duration of your wait or commute. In my experience this will, inexplicably, become a 3-hour conversation where they tell you about their lives in minute detail. Just because I was reading an autobiography, it doesn’t mean I want to hear yours, gramps.
Tip 3: Be mindful of the cover.
Your best bet is to pick something with a cover that is generally bland and boring, but with a clear and legible title. This combination discourages people from asking you what you’re reading, partially because the cover isn’t particularly eye catching and partially because no one wants to admit that they can’t read the title when it’s in size 84 font.
Out of the Blue Hott Tip: Now, I am about to tell you a secret that will seem to contradict this. There is one genre that is actually immune to all of the tips that I’ve outlined so far, based on cover alone. That is the bodice-ripper romance novel. If you are reading a book in public that features a half-naked Fabio and a buxom woman spilling out of her corset, even the most chatty of people will usually leave you alone. In fact, if you didn’t want to read an actual romance novel, I’d bet that you could probably find a dust jacket or print out a fake cover for your book. I’m guessing that this would probably be the most successful for women, because there’s nothing that makes the Uncle Steves of the world more uncomfortable than women owning their sexuality.
Tip 4: Choose a novel.
Ideally, it should be long enough to occupy your time, but not so long that it is worthy of someone remarking “wow, that’s a big book” as though you are incapable of the attention span required to read L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission to Earth. I mean, you probably are, but not specifically because of the word count.
I generally avoid collections of short stories and poems when I’m traveling. This is entirely personal preference. I’m the type of person who likes to pause after finishing a story and stare morosely into the middle distance like some sort of Victorian era woman waiting to hear word of her husband lost at sea. Unfortunately, I have learned that many chatty people mistake this for eye contact. And as we already discussed, the best way to avoid conversations is to avoid eye contact. So if you’re the type of person who can power through collections of short stories or poetry without pausing (aka a mutant), then feel free to disregard this suggestion.
Hopefully this unsolicited advice will help you feel more confident and prepared when selecting your next airport/bus stop read. Always remember to check the pocket in front of your seat for personal belongings before exiting the aircraft.