In New York City, where I live, there are a few things you're not allowed to do in bars. You can't smoke. You can't bring your dog. And, technically, you can't dance. That's thanks to a 1926 law meant to curtail interracial mingling; though loosely enforced today -- only one citation has been issued since 2012 -- it still stands.
Well, to these laws I propose adding one more: no reading books in bars.
I know I'm in the minority here. I know most people think it's charming -- the sight of some solitary soul tucked into a candlelit corner table nursing a tumbler of whisky while engrossed in a well-thumbed paperback. Not me. I walk into a bar and see somebody reading a book, I'm turning right around and hauling ass out of there.
Reading a book is wholly antithetical to the purpose of a bar. The purpose of a bar is to socialize, be it with friends, lovers, potential lovers or complete strangers. There is a reason bars were once called public houses. Of course, fraternizing is not mandatory. You can go to a bar and sit by yourself and not utter a single word to a single person the entire night (save the bartender when placing your order). But you must be at least open to the possibility of conversation. Just as you must allow for a bar's bathrooms to be without soap and/or paper towels, and the tips of its pool cues to be without sufficient nap, so too must you accept the prospect that a fellow patron might solicit your opinion or otherwise attempt to engage you in basic human interaction.
Reading a book in a bar brazenly defies this maxim. It's a standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons. It is in no way to be interpreted as a conversation starter, and most certainly not as an inducement to flirtation: dare you inquire about the book's plot or pleasingness and you're almost guaranteed to receive a condescending smile and a curt response. For those who wish to get out of the house and read a book in the company of others there is already a designated place for this: it's called a library. If my friends and I went to the library with a six-pack and sat down and started drinking and talking, would we not be quickly evicted? Even if I just went to the library by myself and plopped down and cracked open a beer, would I not be tossed straight away? So why shouldn't the same hold true for people reading books in bars?
Don't get me wrong: I don't desire to ban all reading in bars. Newspapers and magazines are fine, as they are concerned with current affairs and indicate a willingness to discuss the goings-on of the day. And racing forms or any other gambling-related literature is not only permissible but essential to any upstanding watering hole. Really, it's just book-length works of fiction and nonfiction I oppose -- and for a reason more primary than the above.
I am a writer. All day, nearly every day, I sit in front of a computer screen stringing words together. It is not easy for me. It is, in fact, excruciating. Just this stupid little thing has taken me hours. At day's end I want to get as far away from words and writing as possible. I don't want any reminders of my ineffectualness. Usually a bar is safe haven. I can meet up with friends and talk about relationships and restaurants and celebrities and sex and mortality and movies. Or I can just sit by myself and quietly watch a ballgame. But every now and then I'll encounter one of them, that son of a bitch at the candlelit corner table, that reader. The book in their hands taunts and ridicules me, vows that I'll never be as good as its author. And should I aspire to be, I must leave the bar immediately, hurry home and get back to work.
Again, I know I likely speak only for myself here, and that if you're a diehard books-in-bars person this missive will hardly dissuade you. But my final case against the loathsome pastime is also, I believe, the strongest: the stories I've heard in bars are some of the most entertaining and well-told stories I've ever encountered, better than most any novel or history I've ever read.
Rather than opening a book, simply prick up your ears.
Sean Manning is the editor of Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar.