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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Monday, November 6, 2006 4:42 pm
Reading in Public
Posted by: Keir Graff

I filed my review of Walter Mosley’s new book, Killing Johnny Fry, this morning. Mosley’s well known for his crime fiction, and he’s also written science fiction, political essays, and the odd work of general fiction, but Killing Johnny Fry represents a completely new direction for him. How new? The book is subtitled “A Sexistential Novel,” which gave me an inkling. Between the noiresque title and the, um, unusual subtitle, I figured I was in for some erotic noir, or noir erotica.

And that was almost true. Killing Johnny Fry has a framing device appropriate to crime fiction, and a storyline that suggests literary aspirations, but what I will remember most are the wall-to-wall, gratuitously detailed sex scenes. It was as if Henry Miller had been reincarnated and freed from his remaining inhibitions.

Now, most people who want to read erotica probably like to read it alone, perhaps curled up in bed with a glass of wine. One likes to be alone to commune with one’s…thoughts…when reading material of a provocative nature. But reading books is my job. I have tight deadlines. I don’t have the luxury of reading books a chapter at a time in the time and place of my choosing.

And so I read Killing Johnny Fry on the bus, barely opening the pages, peering in between them as if into a dark canyon, all to keep the rider next to me from wondering what kind of pervert reads graphically detailed, wildly inventive accounts of sex at eight o’clock in the morning.

I read it at my desk, while I ate my lunch, trying to maintain a professional demeanor while inwardly I was thinking, She did WHAT to WHO with the WHAT?

And I read it at home, while my two-year-old danced to “Philadelphia Chickens” and my six-month-old tried to eat Duplo bricks and I struggled to keep myself grounded amidst the incongruities.

After all, it’s my job. Sometimes I read about teenagers who grow up on ranches, and sometimes I read about, um, unusual couplings of people who, erm, use unusual devices in, ah, unusual ways. Just another day at the office. And elsewhere.

Sure, you say. Nice excuse. Saying you read it for work is like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Which reminds me of a friend of mine who wrote a funny article for a local weekly, about reading Playboy in public. It’s sold in public, he reasoned, why don’t you ever see anyone reading it? So he read it on the bus, at the barber’s–I forget all the places–surreptitiously documenting the reactions of onlookers.

Playboy magazine thought it was pretty funny, so they reprinted it. It was a nice way for him to meet some people. A little while later, he was working at

I thought this was a brilliant career move. As for myself, I had always harbored dreams of working at The New Yorker. So I started reading The New Yorker in public. I read it on buses, at the barber, in restaurants–all over the place. I wrote up a funny piece about how I was brave enough to read The New Yorker in public and sent it to them, but I’m still waiting for the return e-mail.

If they don’t go for it, I’m guessing that it’s because they don’t want to look like they’re copying Playboy.

The snobs.



3 Responses to “Reading in Public”
  1. maggie Says:

    Hey, thanks for the Mosley tip, my husband just loves him. Umm, I can’t wait to turn him on to/with the new book. ;-)

  2. Keir Says:

    It occurs to me that I failed entirely to discuss the read-aloud angle….

  3. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Dirty Book, Crowded Bus Says:

    [...] I’ve written about this before, of course. And, this morning, crawling down Lake Shore Drive in a packed bus in a blizzard, I was opening my book so narrowly that it was a little like trying to read the contents of an envelope, trying to ignore the frown of a gray-haired commuter to my left. ”Gimme a break, lady,” I wanted to say, ”I’m working!” [...]

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