Black on White

Even the most constant and God-fearing of my readers, I know, will fidget a little when I talk of this matter. None of us is without guilt. I should like to spare your feelings and my own. But the thing can no longer be evaded. It cannot remain there snivelling in its subconscious lair but must be dragged into the honest daylight and faced courageously.

I refer to our common weakness for stealing or borrowing a little of this and that out of a neighbor’s newspaper or book in streetcars and such places.

No use any of us protesting. You have done it yourself. You have craned your neck and shifted your person and strained your eyeballs to filch a little of someone else’s reading matter. You have suddenly discovered a magnetic glamor in some news item in a stranger’s hands as you peeped sidewise—maybe the very item you skipped indifferently in your own paper.

As for myself, I confess readily that what the other fellow is reading in a public place fascinates me more than anything I read myself. It has the flavor of forbidden fruit, a touch at least of the thrill of eavesdropping and key-holing.

An imperfectly deciphered headline bothers me until a fortuitous refolding of my neighbor’s paper brings it more legibly into focus. If I can’t find out the title of the book that young lady two seats away is reading, the subway ride is positively spoiled. When the straphanger next to me turns his page before I have quite digested some item in his paper, I feel offended enough almost to protest aloud.

One of the strangest things in a strange world, indeed, is the fact that the contents of your neighbor’s newspaper are always more exciting than anything you can find in your own. This is true even if you have the same edition of the same paper in your hands.

News-peeping is too prevalent to be ignored. Since it cannot be cured, we ought at least to cease being embarrassed by it. It would be better for everyone concerned, I think, to throw off the false modesty that makes the news-peeper behave like a pickpocket. Let us divest ourselves of inhibitions in this regard. The time is ripe, my countrymen, to recognize the thing as inevitable and to accommodate ourselves to it.

News-peeping is not really so frivolous an occupation as it seems at first flush. The seasoned peeper, if he brings to the enterprise a measure of philosophy, gets more out of a neighbor’s columns than ever was put into them. He observes and meditates upon a thousand and one tell-tale relationships between individuals and their literary fare.

At any rate I do. How often a book that seemed wholly impossible is instantly made credible when I realize who reads it…. How often the apparent stupidity of a magazine is revealed to me as truly inspired subtlety when I become aware who reads it….

I contemplate the most astonishing incongruities between printed matter and its readers. I watch down-at-heel, unshaved fellows studying the financial pages. I find Dreiser and Cabell and D. H. Lawrence in the most unlikely hands. I see stalwart he-men poring over the women’s page and seemingly sane people reading confession magazines….

As a first step towards putting news-peeping on an intelligent and scientific basis, I propose that community leaders devise a set of rules, a kind of Etiquette of News-Peeping, with a view to eliminating the present embarrassments and obstructions.

This is not the place to elaborate such rules. Just to indicate the need, I pose a few questions that should be settled once and for all:

If your neighbor is engaged in reading a piece in your paper, should you wait until he or she is through before turning the page?

Is it permissible to wriggle in one’s seat or to cause a commotion in some other manner with the object of forcing your neighbor to shift the position of a book or magazine?

Such questions cannot be answered offhand. They will have to be studied patiently. The resources of psychology, sociology and other sciences will have to be brought to bear upon them. And the tendency to news-peep must somehow be harnessed for the general good. It is too great an educational medium to be overlooked. A research movement should easily line up the financial support of Hearst, Macfadden, Landau and other great publishers.

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