According to a book of manners published in 1737, “It is barbarous, and argues the height of indiscretion to peep over anyone’s shoulder when he is writing; and ungenteel when he is reading.” Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch unearthed the above tidbit, and tells Maclean’s, “I’ve been able to find literary references to reading over shoulders going back at least to the early 18th century.”
Sensing a stranger’s gaze on his page makes Lynch personally uneasy. “I find myself thinking, ‘Can I turn the page now? Is this person finished with this page?’ ” Nevertheless, the professor admits he does it himself. “I’m a bookish person. Every time I see a book that looks a little bit interesting, I find myself peeking and doing my best not to get caught.”
In Toronto, not only does book lover Julie Wilson peek at what people are reading, she considers it her job. Wilson is the founder of Book Madam and Associates. When boarding buses and subways, she takes note of which books she sees strangers reading, and then posts about it on her blog Seen Reading. A typical entry goes like this: “Asian male, early 30s, wearing pressed beige dress pants, black T-shirt, and spotless black sneakers.” Wilson informs her readers the stranger is reading The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, then gives the page number and an excerpt from the precise passage of the book.
“Our transit system is so packed it actually doesn’t feel like voyeurism,” she tells Maclean’s. “I would lean over people’s shoulders. They were used to having someone that close to them in morning rush hour. I would see the name and the page of the book and would go to a bookstore and find the page and transcribe. I was always extremely careful. If I could catch that someone’s body shifted, even in the slightest, they moved their shoulders, that was it for me. I would walk away.” In the three years of doing it, “I’m not aware that anyone knew what was happening,” she says.
For those of you who are aware when someone is staring at your page, Winnipeg-based civility expert Lewena Bayer advises “not to take action or make a comment until the ‘uninvited viewer’ injects himself into your space.” Resist saying, for instance, “I could read aloud if that would save you from straining your eyes.” Instead, she suggests politely smiling and saying, “Would you like a section of my paper?” Bayer goes on to tell of the time her seatmate on an airplane said, “Excuse me, I wanted to tell you there’s a typo on the second paragraph of the report you’re typing.” “I was so caught off guard that I said, ‘Thank you,’ but I recall stewing about it for the balance of the two-hour trip.”
In Munich, an online discussion on the topic among English-speaking expats drew six pages of comments. One expat pleads for advice. “Giving them a dramatic theatrical glare doesn’t shame them to stop. Anyone have any suggestions to combat this?”
“Roll up the paper and hit them with it,” comes the first reply, followed by: “Welcome to a foreign country. They have different customs here and reading over someone’s shoulder isn’t that terrible. Why does it bother you? How can it possibly affect you?”
“Just be nice and ask the person if they’ve finished the article, or give them the paper,” someone else writes. “I’ve had some amazingly fun conversations because of this. It’s an interesting way to meet people.”
Back in Ontario, Erin Gray confesses that as a former commuter-train rider, “I read over people’s shoulders all the time. I would read anything: newspapers, books, messages being typed on BlackBerries.” The commute is “boring,” she explains. “If I didn’t have reading material and if my cell was dead, what else am I supposed to do?”
Gray tells of the time she saw a female passenger finishing the final pages of the novel The Lovely Bones. “I cried at the end of that book,” she says. “So when I saw her on the last page, I got my tissue out to pass to her. But she did not cry. So I said to her, ‘Excuse me, did you just finish The Lovely Bones? Wasn’t it great?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, it was cute.’ ” “Cute? What?” thought Gray. “So I pressed on. ‘Didn’t you find it emotional?’ ‘Mmm, not really,’ ” said the woman. “Sociopath,” thought Gray. “I switched seats.”