Why do we ask?

When you see someone absorbed in a book (or e-reader), it is customary to ask, “What are you reading?”

Why do we do this?

While I don’t mind answering, and occasionally I’m excited to share, the reality is that the asking interrupts the reading.  Someone who is reading might simply be using it to fill empty time and turn out to be happy to talk, but that person could also be very intent on their entertainment (or edification) and will be irritated to be interrupted.

Also, what is the purpose of asking?  There is natural curiosity, of course, and the inexplicable human need to make conversation.  Really, though, what’s the likelihood that you’ll know the book, or be able to comment on it?  How often does this question lead to further discussion, and how often does the conversation die with a simple acknowledgement?

On the flip side of this, I also wonder why it is human nature to answer verbally while also showing the cover.  The cover probably doesn’t help, unless the author’s name is prominent and well-known, or it’s a bestseller.

This all happened to me yesterday – I went to dinner by myself, accompanied by Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (it’s an interesting non-fiction read).  I sat at the bar (which I highly recommend if you dine alone) and both bartenders asked what I was reading.  Of course, I flashed the cover when answering, and the conversation went through the usual “is it good” and “what’s it about” before finally petering out.

I guess we’ll chalk this one up to a societal habit.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. deshipley
    May 06, 2013 @ 22:35:11

    “I also wonder why it is human nature to answer verbally while also showing the cover. The cover probably doesn’t help, unless the author’s name is prominent and well-known, or it’s a bestseller.” — I’m often tempted to show the cover without answering verbally, on the premise that if the questioner cares enough to ask, they ought to also care enough to read the title for themselves. A faulty premise, I know; on the whole, people seem much more inclined to ask questions than they are to seek out answers.

    On a less jaded note, maybe they ask this particular question in the hope that it will be a book they know and like, so they can go on to share their enthusiasm with a fellow fan.

    Reply

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