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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  • Rikalous

    I used to like the Xanth novels back when I was a young teenager. One of them was called The Color of Her Panties. I was very careful to hold it with my hand covering the title at all times. Then a girl I had a bit of a crush on asked me what book I was reading…

    My tastes have diverged enough from then that last summer I felt snobbishly awkward about being seen reading Deception Point.

    Good vibes sent to you and your family, Hawker40. May the unidentified stuff be benign and the rest be dealt with as easily as possible.

  • Anonymous

    Sleazoid Express, a terrific look at the 42nd street grindhouse movie scene before Disney came marching through. However the cover is splashed with a big, lurid image from a grindhouse poster of old, and that got some looks. 

    My favorite example of this is when I was reading an issue of Video Watchdog waiting to get my hair cut. A little girl was in one of the other chairs scribbling away on a pad with crayons. The issue in question had The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth on the cover. I noticed she was staring at it and I winced, fearing I’d inadvertently given her some nightmare fuel. She looked at me, “That’s a real cool monster” and went back to her drawing. Made my day.

  • Chris Doggett

    I wasn’t exactly ashamed to be seen reading Lolita, but I quickly realized it would be best if I avoided reading it in certain places. (Near the childrens’ lit section of the bookstore, or in public parks with playground equipment, or in my car, eating lunch near an elementry school) I was working for the Census at the time, so I was driving around a lot, and had perfectly good reasons to be where I was, but I still felt very self conscious reading that book in certain venues.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Best wishes for you and your mother, Hawker40.

  • Anonymous

    Sending good thoughts your way Hawker40.

  • Andrew Galley

    I didn’t know to be ashamed at the time but now that I think about it, some people might have seen me reading Anthem by Ayn Rand fifteen or so years ago. Oh dear god.

  • Anonymous

    Best wishes for you and yours, Hawker!

    I am minded of one particular incident in which the book I was reading got me laughed at.  It was in middle school, and I had checked out a book on the First World War.  It was a fairly light read and every page was illustrated.

    However, its cover had been replaced with a pretty sturdy cover.  It was pasteboard or maybe really thin masonite, with a sealed cloth outer.  The book’s actual illustrated cover had been printed on a separate piece of paper and glued to this armored husk which had been bolted to the book (not literally bolted).

    However, somewhere along the way someone had screwed up and the cover illustration had been put on upside down.  So I was reading it at the lunch table one day and some other kid pointed and laughed at me for holding my book upside-down.

  • Catherine

    I read the Koran (in English) a few years ago, because I hadn’t read it, I’m interested in what people believe, and I live in a suburb of Melbourne with a fairly big Muslim population.  It was a very interesting read, but reading it on the tram was quite scary.  It wasn’t that anyone did or said anything particular, but it was astonishing how visible I felt, and I gained a whole new respect for the women who go about every day wearing headscarves that announce their religious beliefs to the world at large, especially in a world that can have some pretty nasty opinions about those beliefs.  Quite a revelation. 

    Reading the Bible on the tram bothered me in a similar way (though without the quiet fear for my physical safety) – I worried that people would assume I was homophobic, judgmental, and generally all the fundamentalist stereotypes.  Which upset me in a different way, because I’m trying to figure out whether I am Christian at present, but if I am, I’m definitely of the theologically-inquisitive-live-and-let-live-Anglican strain, not the biblical-literalist-convert-or-be-yelled-at strain.

    On the bright side, I no longer have any shame about reading romance novels on the tram or at work, despite the lurid covers.  It turns out that I’m a lot less concerned about people assuming I’m stupid than I am about people assuming I share beliefs that I don’t share…

  • Anonymous

    Don’t know why I didn’t think to post this earlier, but this is an excellent blog that catalogues Sci-Fi/Fantasy covers that one really wouldn’t want to be seen with in public; whether they be mildly obscene or just really, really stupid.

    Some choice examples:

  • Father Shaggy.

    I’m a big white guy with a shaved head, so I was reluctant to be seen reading Nigger. I can’t recall the subtitle, but it’s an etymological and historical study of one of the ugliest words I know. Fascinating.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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:

  • Timothy (TRiG)

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


  • Anonymous

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

  • Invisible Neutrino

    For Firefox:

    For MSIE:

    For Chrome:

    General instructions for clearing your cache (which is also a good idea to purge from time to time just so people can’t go fishing for stuff on sites you’ve visited):

  • Stephanie Ivy

    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.

  • 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).

  • 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.  ;-)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • FearlessSon

    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.

  • 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.

  • Patrick McGraw

    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. 

  • Alex Harman

    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.