18 February 2012

You can't judge a book by its cover. Oh, yes you can!

Many people who commute while away the interminable journey to and from work by reading.  Whether it's the daily newspaper or a paperback, most travellers have their noses stuck in a book.  Those not so literate, prefer the loud noises (I refuse to use the word 'music') emanating from their MP3s or perhaps a game of Solitaire or Pacman on their smartphones.  But this is material for another post.  I shall restrict myself today to readers.

I've noticed a growing number of book readers have started to cover their reading material either with a sheet of plain paper or one of these fancy fabric book covers, complete with ribbon bookmark.  Ostensibly, these serve to protect books as they get shoved into briefcases or pushed next to the lunchtime sandwiches in a rucksack.  But there is another reason why people cover their books: no one else can see the title of the book you are reading.  The first time I saw a covered book on the train, I assumed its owner was simply a bibliophile who didn't want to damage his book in transit.  After a few more sightings, however, I figured that readers didn't want others to know what they were reading.  The books covered looked like library books - grubby and dog-eared.  But why?  Were they ashamed of their reading matter?  Was it something smutty?  Radical?  Puerile?  A bodice-ripper?  

If you're anything like me, you can't help judging someone by the kinds of books he chooses.  You visit someone at their home or office and are shown into a room with a bookcase.  What is the first thing you do?  You walk over to examine the spines and draw immediate conclusions about their owner.  When you see that smart business lady/commuter engrossed in her Harry Potter paperback, then you very quickly revise your first impressions downwards.  She does well to cover her book.

I also read while travelling.  The frequent delays and disruptions on public transport these days mean I get through more reading while on the go than when at home!  Much to my surprise, I found myself covering my books as well.  I wasn't reading anything that I could be ashamed of - it was most likely something arcane and in English, and a bit of a challenge for my fellow German co-travellers (a bit of a challenge for me, too, now that I think of it).  I thought about why I had done this and thought perhaps I had been unfair and a tad hypocritical about the book-coverers I mentioned earlier.  I came to the conclusion that I cover my books in public because, quite frankly, it's none of their business to know what I'm reading.   With friends and acquaintances one can be quite open about literary preferences, but not with strangers on the station platform.  Maybe book choices fall into the same category as religion, politics and salaries; they are taboo subjects to be avoided.

13 February 2012

It's a boy! It's a girl!

A friend of mine recently gave birth to her second a child, a daughter.  I wanted to send her a greeting card and a small present for the little girl.  The department store was packed with rows of cards that celebrate every conceivable life event and those for new arrivals took up a whole stand.  You could find a style to suit every taste: elegant, jokey cartoony, kitsch, sweet, retro.  I was spoilt for choice but still couldn't find one that said just what I wanted to say.  I was looking for a card that wasn't obviously 'girlish.'  In other words, one that wasn't awash with pink colours, pretty flowers or suchlike.  I wanted something more neutral, that wasn't redolent of gender stereotypes.  Could I find anything?  No!  I searched for ages and messed up the neat rows good and proper.  (I could hear an irate shop assistant huffing and puffing behind me as I undid all her organisation.  Buy, hey, I'm the customer and it's her job to tidy up shelves, right?)

In the end I had to compromise for a sort of pinkish composition with fluffy bunny rabbits but was disappointed with my choice.  Why are we forced to choose between the two extremes?  From day one, the boy/girl dichotomy is reinforced relentlessly, with no overlap or grey area in between.  It starts in the maternity ward when the nurse wraps the tiny ID bracelet around the infant's wrist: girls get a pink band and boys blue.  

Would it be so bad if we could find a greeting card in pale green, or lemon, or peach?  Why do toys have to be restricted to Bob the Builder or Barbie?  If parents buy articles for their unborn children in colours that are not blue or pink, they have to find a ready answer to the question: Don't you know the sex of your child?  And what can you answer today with the existence of ultrasound?

I'm not sure how most parents would react to gender-neutral gifts.  I suspect most would simply feel pleasure at receiving a gift, rather than peeved because of the colour/style.  This may also be helpful if we genuinely want to encourage our daughters to consider "typically male" jobs in engineering or science.  If a little girl always gets a Barbie doll and makeup at Christmas, then we have no right to complain when she shows no interest in technology and science.  If boys received toy kitchen sets as children then perhaps they might not be so averse to preparing lunch and ironing a few shirts now and again - even if there is a female relative/friend in the household.  I know that what I'm proposing here is pretty radical (to some ears); the macho types, who wish to perpetuate their kind, could accuse me of raising pansies and destroying the whole fabric of society as we know it.

As a footnote, the gift that I bought to welcome little Anna was a colourful picture book, complete with scrunchy, fabric pages that make a noise as you turn them.  I hope she gets the habit.
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Squeaky Door by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.