Books one doesn’t want to be seen reading

The girls got an early Christmas present yesterday — tickets to a big concert at the Spectrum II CoreStates Center First Union Center Wachovia Center big arena where the Sixers and Flyers play.

For the chauffeur (me), that meant several hours in coffee shops and diners, which was good because I had a lot of offline reading to catch up on. The problem was that one of the books I’ve been reading is Bob Larson’s In the Name of Satan: How the Forces of Evil Work and What You Can Do to Defeat Them.

Having spend much of the past eight years working my way through the first two books in the Left Behind series, I’ve gotten used to sitting in public reading something appalling, and thus I’m pretty adept at concealing my reading material in coffee shops and waiting rooms. But even so, the Bob Larson had me more worried than usual that someone might catch a glimpse of the cover.

Had anyone asked, I could have assured them that their seeing another person reading this book should, in no way, be construed as suggesting that this book was in any way worth reading. I could have explained that this was research. I could have described my developing theory about the way an obsession with Satan in popular religion feeds a delusional, self-aggrandizing form of piety. I could have pointed out that Larson is a ridiculous figure — a hopelessly pompous idiot who has carved out a lucrative career scamming the gullible to hire him as a rogue demon hunter. And I could have gone on to describe how Larson’s book is the embodiment of W. Scott Poole’s observation of the way that distorted portrayals of religious beliefs in popular culture take root in the imagination and are then reabsorbed in popular religion until ideas that originated in pop culture come to be taught as “traditional” religious dogma.

But what if they didn’t ask?

The concern here isn’t one of vanity. I’m just some anonymous guy in a diner, and when no one knows or cares who you are, you don’t need to worry about damaging your reputation. But what if someone saw me reading Bob Larson’s book and, God forbid, thought: “Hmm, look’s interesting. I’ll have to check that out.” If even one person saw me reading that book and was then even slightly influenced toward perhaps reading it themselves … I just couldn’t have that on my conscience.

My wife ran into a similar situation recently when she was reading Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense, which featured a large photo of Glenn Beck on the cover. Those who looked closer might read the subtitle — “Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.” But what if someone just glanced over and saw her reading what they mistook to be a book written by Glenn Beck? And what if this observer were to take from that the dangerously mistaken idea that reading Glenn Beck — or watching Glenn Beck, or listening to Glenn Beck — was somehow acceptable behavior? What if their passing glimpse of that book cover were, even in some small way, to reinforce the notion that reading Glenn Beck was something that decent, mature human beings might proudly admit to in front of their neighbors? You can’t risk encouraging that kind of obscenity, even accidentally. So she took off the dust jacket and replaced it with one from a Sue Miller novel.

But so anyway, my question here is this: What books have you been reading that you were uncomfortable being seen reading? Maybe it was a research project, or a guilty pleasure, or something unfairly maligned or something easily misunderstood. Or maybe it was several of those at once. What was the book?

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  • Eeeee! Someone else who’s read Azure Bonds! I eventually found three other books with those characters — two being outright sequels, and one being sort of a sideways continuation. Never managed to get into the other FORGOTTON REALMS books, but the ones starring Alias, those I reread periodically. Maybe I should look up the authors for what else they’ve written or co-written.

    One thing that amuses me most about the cover of that book — it’s totally lampshaded late in the story. [POSSIBLE SPOILER EXPECT PROBABLY NOT BECAUSE I’M VAGUE AND SHIT.] Throughout the entire narrative, Alias dresses like a smart adventurer who knows about heat, cold, and armor that does not double as lingerie. Then comes the scene in which she finds herself in that, and she’s all, WTF? Who put me in this? Who thinks this counts as ‘armor’? Then a few pages later she’s like, Oh, magic armor. Well, that explains that.

  • Anonymous

    I’m embarrassed to read anything with a sex scene because I’m always afraid someone will choose that moment to lean over my shoulder and go, “Hey, whatcha reading?!” Also, anything with God in the title because I don’t want people assuming I’m a Bible-waving fundie (even if it’s not a Christian book).  I think this is because I used to be a Bible-waving fundie, so even though the subject of God still interests me, I’m trying to distance myself from that reputation as much as possible. 

    And I’m overly bothered by the idea of someone reading my writing over my shoulder.  Usually, I keep a non-embarassing book close by, so whenever someone I know comes over and asks what I’m up to, I hide my paper inside of the cover of the book and say, “Oh, you know, just reading some Shakespeare…”

  • Anonymous

    Uh, I was given to understand that the Nazis banned Fraktur (albeit in 1941).

    Also, I could only get through the first chapter of Mein Kampf, it’s that fucking bad.  The only other thing that does that to me are the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

  • Kiba

    Hard to understand how anyone could mistake it for a Bible – although I suppose the red-and-black printing might do it if you didn’t see the spine.

    Yeah, and they were sitting in the seat in front of me too. I suppose they thought I was reading some kind of fancy family bible but that’s not something I can see a person dragging onto the bus to read.

    Ah – the Red Book Of Westmarch edition.

    I also have the hardbound in green version of the Hobbit. 

    One of the more pious students in my class in high school once warned me about spreading pornography when he found this Magic card in my deck.

    Oy. I’ve seen worse than that on magazine covers in the checkout lane at the grocery store.

    Someone else who’s read Azure Bonds!

    Have have all of them: Azure Bonds, The Wyvern’s Spur, Song of the Saurials, and Masquerades. It’s been awhile since I’ve read them all but I didn’t find Masquerades to be as good and the first three.

  • Anonymous

    Prayers and thoughts to you and your mother, Hawker.

    For me… Atlas Shrugged. I foolishly decided to read it, just so I could see what all the libertarians were going on about. (Still haven’t finished it.) When I went to buy it, the guy at the counter glanced at it, looked at  me, and sort of blinked. Then he went “…Are you reading this for school, or something?” I explained; apparently, if you frequent a bookstore/coffee shop wearing The Clash and U2 shirts and reading Ursula Le Guin, people sort of boggle when you buy Ayn Rand.

    More fun than that was Smoke and Mirrors, a bunch of collected short stories by Neil Gaiman. One of them is… explicit. His note in the introduction, IIRC, is that it took him forever to finish because he’d write a bit, get horribly red-faced and embarrassed, and put the story down. Then go back a while later, write a bit more, and get too embarrassed to go on. Rinse, repeat.

    The book also contains Mouse, which is vaguely horrifying in what it doesn’t say (Neil Gaiman is so good at that), and Babycakes, which is utterly horrifying and nearly vegan propaganda, and various other awesome stories. But while I was reading it, I left it on the table one day, and of course the page my fourteen-year-old brother opened it to was the erotic piece. He and my sister let me have no end of teasing over that one.

  • Anonymous

    Not books, but I have similar fears about my internet browsing history

  • I know that, but if you want to communicate “Hey, this is about Germany!” you put text in a Fraktur or Fraktur-like font on a book cover. Not commonly done now but my John Toland books have it on their paper book covers.

  • Holden Pattern

    Oh my.

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  • P J Evans

    I am so with you on that paperback cover.  Although it does, actually, fit the story….

  • P J Evans

    I don’t know about that, but my mid-60s first-year German text was printed in it, and I have a German reader where all the prose is printed in fraktur and the poetry is in roman (or, as I tend to think of it, romaji).

  • Books about mainstream religion. I am far more comfortable reading a book on, say, paganism in public than I am one about any of the major monotheistic faiths. (Regardless as to why I am reading the book.) I worry that I am going to  be grouped in with the right-wing variety.

    On a separate note, I had a fair bit of paranoia when I was researching my senior thesis in college. It was on terrorism and the media, and I’m fairly certain my web browsing habits that semester probably netted me an FBI dossier somewhere.

  • Kiba

    Smoke and Mirrors. I loved that book. I made the mistake a few years ago of loaning it and American Gods to a friend of mine. She lost Smoke and Mirrors and let her dog chew on the other one. Needles to say I wasn’t a happy camper and now I never lend out books.

    In Smoke and Mirrors I particularly liked Snow, Glass, and Apples and Nicholas Was.

    For those that haven’t read it you can read Nicholas Was at:

  • Cowboy Diva

    Decades ago, a coworker of mine was on a plane, taking the opportunity to resize artwork for pasteup of the medical textbook she was working on. This was back when you worked with copies of the illustrations, and a proportion wheel. Her traytable was covered with bits of paper. It wasn’t until she noticed her seatmate looking at her (and the pictures) with horror that she remembered she was working on images for a book on breast cancer and reconstructive surgery.

  • Dawn

    I don’t read in public much, but some of the fantasy novels I like have really terrible cover art in classic crap-fantasy-novel style, which I guess I would find slightly embarassing.

    Also, “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” is an excellent book and should be required reading for white people in America. But someone could draw the wrong sort of conclusion about the answer the book gives to that question in the title….

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    A huge tome simply titled “SYPHILIS”

    Was very interesting (medical history stuff) but I felt like I needed a shirt saying “NB: does not have syphilis” while reading it on the bus.

    On a tangental note, a friend of mine had an ongoing gag of finding me the most offensive possible book in regular used book sale we have in town. I have a weird thing where I can’t throw a book in the bin because of overarching respect for the innate dignity of bookity, but I don’t want an extra copy of these in the genersal circulation. So whenever someone scans the bookshelves at my house I have to explain why I have a book outing the USSR as the Beast of Revelation, a book on how to be a good Catholic housewife, and a book proclaiming that God wants me to be very rich.

  • Münchner Kindl

    I’m a bit surprised that Fred worries, or to recommend a Kindle, instead of book covers. Since it was in the US that I first saw them (in a Christian bookshop, so you can protect the family bible wherever you go, presumably). Whether the title is embarrassing, or the cover art too bad, a book cover from cloth or similar that slips over the original cover is an easy solution.

    Poor college students and similar make their own from newspaper or other papers, binding each book to protect it (my mother used to do this with my school books at the start of the year).

  • Tonio

    Banning Fraktur? One would at least understand if it was Comic Sans…

  • JenL

    I was in the law school library one day reading a Patricia Cornwell novel where someone was killing couples in lovers-lane type settings.  The cover was a pair of linked hearts drawn in blood.  

    Some idiot guy I barely knew saw the hearts on the cover and stopped to make some snide comment about “oh, even *smart* girls read romance novels” … (well, yes, on occasion, but not at the school library!).  

    In retrospect, glaring at him, shoving the book in his face, and saying “take a closer look” might not have been the *most* mature possible response.  ;-)

  • Anonymous

    I’m extremely careful never to read books on Wicca or the occult in public for the same reason.  I don’t want people to think that I’m some sort of stereotype.

  • Anonymous

    It’s the sci-fi industry.  Unless the hero of a story is female, Only Men Read It and we must make the females look as sexy as possible–how else will sci-fi books ever sell?  Certainly not on the merits of the writing!

    (Heritage and Exile, which combines that book with The Heritage of Hastur in one volume, does a better job WRT non-sexist book covers.)

  • Anonymous

    Or they’ll wonder why you’re reading an old biology textbook.

  • Anonymous

    I’m rather curious what series this is.  I was thinking Twilight, but there are 4 books in that series.

  • Anonymous

    There are 4 Twilight books.  I’m hoping the one you omitted is Breaking Dawn, for your sanity’s sake.

  • Paradox244

    Just yesterday I went to a music recital that my sister was preforming in at her private Christian school.  I rented a book called “How Old is the Universe” (13.7 billion years, for those not in the know.)  It’s about the scientific search for the age of the universe, but I decided not to bring it along for fear that the people at that school might think it was some sort of young earther thing.  And aprove.

  • Persia

    Same here, though I did have a bad moment on the plane when my boss was passing me on the way to the bathroom and the text was definitely Not Safe For Work.

  • Persia

    It doesn’t. It was interesting when I read it, but I think there are better books that help. (I went through the same phase.)

  • Hawker40

    Books I was embarrased to be seen with… I’m a reader.  And a history buff/major.  So, yes, Mein Kamf, Das Capital, Mao’s Little Red Book, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich…
    I had a weakness for woman’s romance novels, which often seem to be low grade porn.  I don’t care if strangers see me with them, but my shipmates…
    I read everything my kids read while they’re under age.  So, Twilight, Eragon, and other books written for teens.

    Something I’m not embarrassed by: RPG books.  I used to ‘recruit’ gamers on ship by reading the Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook on the mess decks.  Someone would ask if I played, and I’d either be recruited into the existing game or end up gamemastering a new game.  Worked every time.

  • Something I’m not embarrassed by: RPG books.  I used to ‘recruit’ gamers on ship by reading the Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook on the mess decks.  Someone would ask if I played, and I’d either be recruited into the existing game or end up gamemastering a new game.  Worked every time.

    I imagine rough seas on a small ship would play hell with the dice rolls though.

  • Heh.  Reminds me of one other time on the bus during the same period when I was reading the Warhammer 40,000 second edition “Codex: Angels of Death” about the Blood Angels and Dark Angels chapters of Space Marines.  An older woman on the bus saw me reading it, got visibly angry, demanding to know why I was reading something that was talking about the Black Rage and the Red Thirst on the open page.  

    Context lady, it makes sense in context… 

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry, what are the Black Rage and the Red Thirst out of context of the Space Marines?  Was she just reacting to the phrases by themselves (Rage = bad), or is there some other context for them?

  • We Must Dissent

    Banning Fraktur?

    Though the official explanation was something about it being “Jewish script”, the more likely explanation is that they realized it was an administrative nightmare: no one in many of the conquered territories could read it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not ashamed of reading Nietzsche in public, but I did have a rather odd encounter once when a philosophy grad student (retired)  several years my senior caught me reading some such on the bus. The problem isn’t that Nietzsche’s antisemetic or a protonazi (both claims are false, btw) or promotes the individual over society, but rather that he’s a filthy Continental, and anyone in the Analytic tradition has to avoid reading such things in order to maintain Purity of Thought.

    “They’ve got you reading the bad stuff have they?”

    Not knowing what to make of this remark I pointed to the cover and said “It’s Beyond Good and Evil”  – when in doubt, always fall back on obvious truths.

    I’m not sure who he thought ‘they’ were – I had abandoned formal study by that point :]

    However, i must admit I keep my Ayn Rand books at home.  Not that I actually read them – I’ve started ‘Atlas Shrugged’ three times, and i can’t cope with the turgid writing.  I did make it through ‘Anthem’, but it has the virtue of being very short.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe what’s needed is some kind of sign, possibly incorporated into a transparent dust jacket, which says “Don’t Read This Book” or “Warning: Mind-Rotting Contents” or something.

  • Tonio

    I would be curious to know why those conquered countries couldn’t read it. To me, Fraktur seems as German as bratwurst.

  • I read “Nicholas Was” aloud at the Toastmasters Christmas party. It’s wonderful.


  • That’s not even the most unfortunate Iron Dream cover, which would probably be this one

    Corrected link


  • Likely it has to do with the fact that some of the conquered nations had languages written in Cyrillic (Serbian Cyrillic, Ukrainian. Belorussian and Russian) and it’s hard enough reading Latin-language script without making the letters all weird in the first place, especially since the German occupiers were busy going around forcing the occupied peoples to understand German.

  • Nice to see other fans of Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb’s Finder’s Stone Trilogy (Azure Bonds, The Wyvern’s Spur, Song of the Saurials). I didn’t much like the third because it was such a downer, but the first and second were among the better gaming novels out there. The Wyvern’s Spur is especially fun as it is basically a high fantasy novel starring Bertie Wooster.

    Vampires, Death, and Burial was great one for getting odd looks in the break room, and the next two books I read being on the Black Death probably didn’t help.

    Speaking of being seen reading books in public, the following occured a few years ago at my local game store on Warhammer night. Most of the games had finished up, and people were hanging around and watching the remaining games. One guy was sitting by an active table reading In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews. I asked him if it was for a class, and his response was an incredulous “of course.” Another guy sarcastically asked me if that would be “a little light reading” for me. All I could say was “…yes?”

  • Cat

    When I was doing my paper on the Left Behind novels, and realized after a problematic interaction that I didn’t want to be seen reading these things, I sewed myself a book cover out of some really swell paisley fabric, and then glued on a printout–in faux parchment–that read:

    The Satanic Bible
    (clip art of a polite little upside-down pentagram)
    with helps 
    Words of Martha Stewart in Red

    I have no idea what “with helps” means, but it’s on my mom’s copy of the KJV. 

  • Piers Anthony’s fourteenth Xanth novel: “The Color of Her Panties.”  Of course, these days I think I’d be equally embarrassed to be caught reading *anything* by Anthony, but back then I was young enough to enjoy his particular brand of juvenility.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Oh, yeah.  Bob Larson.  Wanna know where I first heard of him?

    KOOKS Magazine by Donna Kossy.  Part of an article on anti-rock music kooks titled “Sold Your Soul to Rock and Roll”.  He was apparently one of the BIG Satanic Panic activists of the Eighties, specially targeting Rock Music and Satanic Backwards Masking.  I think the article/profile also mentioned he was Jack Chick’s hatchet man and “intelligence source of what was REALLY going on” in rock music, just as Alberto Rivera was on Romish Popery.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    That book was The Turner Diaries. — Chris the Cynic

    I have seen only one copy of The Turner Diaries, and that was under some pretty weird conditions.  I was at a gun show (which is also a great place to pick up outdoors gear and rare military history books) wearing a Confederate grey Civil War kepi (from a re-enactor bud) and leafing through some books at one dealer’s table.

    And the books were getting decidedly weird.  I was going through a biography/hagiography of General Douglas MacArthur that had obviously been written by a MacArthur fanboy/worshipper.  Example — “American Democracy died on the day Truman sacked MacArthur bla bla bla.”

    Well, the guy behind the table saw my grey Confederate kepi, pulled a copy of Turner Diaries from under the table, and tried to high-pressure me to read it.  Part of me wanted to stay and see if he was going to plug Protocols of the Elders of Zion next, but I decided I didn’t want to know and went over to some nearby ammo dealers.

    As for books I wouldn’t want anyone to know I’m reading, I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about “The Kloran”, the ritual rulebook of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Written by the founder of the Second Klan, who was said to be a really far-gone secret society/ritual fanboy.)  I found it online once, but do I really want to have a PDF or the record I viewed one on my system?

  • If it helps – you could always boot a Linux LiveCD and browse it on that, and then when done, shut down. No permanent record.

    That said, I read the Turner Diaries once online (1998ish?) and strongly felt like I needed to take a shower when I finished because the matter-of-fact racism, sexism and even some anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure all made my face go DX