By the Book: Yes, there are some things he won’t read

Some time back, I wrote about different things we do or don’t read, citing movie credits as an example of something we mostly don’t. (Just what, exactly, is a best boy?) Other “don’t read” things have occurred to me, like the dire warnings shown on tobacco and alcohol labels. They may as well just stick a skull and crossbones on them, like on iodine bottles. Leave me alone, please.

What I do read, though, are those words of wisdom that break out of Chinese fortune cookies. How else would I learn that “To be 80 years young is more hopeful than being 40 years old” or “Everyone has a photographic memory; some just don’t have film.” I have yet to come across the fabled “Help, I’m being held prisoner in a Chinese bakery.”

I don’t read people’s tattoos. Most are brief — a name, a small illustration on an upper arm — nothing awfully interesting there. Some others, however, appear in more interesting places, mostly on women, where it is clearly impolite, maybe even dangerous, to stare, inviting a “What the hell are you looking at?” I don’t have a tattoo, having been just clear-headed enough to change my mind in a Jacksonville, N.C., parlor many moons ago. The three guys I was with also realized our collective mothers would kill us; we stumbled out of the shop undecorated.

I steer clear of those paperbacks the covers of which resemble Victoria’s Secret catalogues. I call them “bosom books” — these are the romance novels. (I thought romance was not needing a castle rising in Spain, or a dance to a constantly surprising refrain, thanks to Rodgers and Hart.) But someone’s certainly buying a lot of them; they fill those metal racks in store after store. I’m sure they’re quite titillating.

I would like to read, but often can’t, those ominous letters left on hall tables in old movies. They are invariably shown at a 30-degree angle, written in dreadful handwriting and are flashed for five, maybe six seconds.

“What did it say?” I desperately ask my wife.” I couldn’t quite catch it,” she’ll reply. “She either loves him or hates him or is leaving because she’s discovered he’s her second cousin. Or there’s cold chicken in the refrigerator.”

Unless I know the person I don’t read obituaries. Wait, that’s not exactly true; I check everyone’s age and any number that’s beyond my number is always very satisfactory, even if it’s only by a couple of months. And, for some bizarre reason, I need to know what religion they are. Maybe I’m concerned it’s getting crowded, maybe even SRO, in whatever section I’m slated for. I certainly don’t want to be standing up for all eternity.

And I rarely read junk mail, most particularly anything that shows up from travel magazines, insurance companies, politicians or foreign missions whose brochures feature three or more happily smiling children. I do admire, though, the courage and optimism shown by any organization that affixes a penny and a nickel to its letter and suggests that I return the coins, along with a substantial check. These people are clearly not from the Bronx.

Photo credit:

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].