THE woman opposite me on the tram is reading. Instinctively, I look to see what she is reading. This is a public transport pastime, after all, something commuters have been doing for as long as there have been books - and public transport. But I can't see what she is reading, only that she is reading a Kindle. So I go back to my book.
I don't have anything against the Kindle per se, or any other e-reader for that matter. It was screens that took us away from reading, and maybe only screens can bring us back. But the increasing popularity of the Kindle is closing a chapter on a certain kind of people watching. For the Kindle makes it almost impossible to tell what strangers are reading. Everything is hidden from view.
In itself this may be no big thing - though I've always enjoyed reader browsing - but it does add to the sense that public transport and public spaces in general have become somehow lonelier in the digital age. That on the tram or train, in the street or mall, we are more disconnected from one another, even as we are more connected than ever before.
The reason you can't tell what Kindle users are reading, of course, is that e-books have no covers, at least not in the traditional sense.
Some will say this is good, because you should not judge a book by its cover anyway. But I've never much liked this saying. As a child I didn't want to judge Peter Benchley's Jaws by its cover, which showed a giant shark about to eat a clueless swimmer. So I read it, and it was about a giant shark that eats clueless swimmers. I didn't go near the water for three years.
But even if it is true we shouldn't judge books by their covers, what about those of us who enjoy judging people by their books? Where does the Kindle leave us?
I've caught thousands of trams and trains and made thousands of snap judgments about strangers based on what they are reading. This is hardly fair, of course - I know nothing about these people. But then strangers get to judge me on what I'm reading (a scary thought, particularly now I recall The Power of Now phase I went through), so at least it is a fair exchange, and one that helps everyone pass the time. And it can be a long time that needs passing. I'm pretty sure I saw a woman read most of War and Peace on a single ride on tram 19 along Sydney Road.
So the snap judgments are there to help smooth the ride. A young woman reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (probably a poet, possibly on Prozac, thinks Ted Hughes was a total shit). Middle-aged man reading Harry Potter (hasn't had sex in a while, slight case of BO, always a good sport at fancy dress parties). Middle-aged woman reading Fifty Shades of Grey (also hasn't had sex in a while, likes a clean home, recently bought some handcuffs). Student with a Trotsky beard reading Chomsky (vegan, wants his girlfriend to make him some clothes out of hessian sacks, will be a partner in a law firm before the decade is out). A suit reading Ayn Rand (may not be human, possibly lizard inside as in V, planning world domination).
But whatever people are reading, I tend to like them just for reading. Yes, even those reading Eat, Pray, Love. OK, not really them.
Occasionally, you glance across at a stranger on the tram and they are reading one of your favourite novels, and there is this wonderful zing, a feeling that maybe you are looking at a kindred spirit. You want to say something to them, and I have seen people do just that. But even if you don't say a word, there is a small connection there, a spark of life in an otherwise dull trip.
The Kindle snuffs out these sparks by making the act of reading private to the point of secretive.
Of course, there is much to like about the Kindle. But something is lost as well; some street life and character is surrendered.
These gadgets do throw up barriers between people. They allow us to be with one another but also to be distant, in our own little worlds. Increasingly, we are ''alone together'', in the words of psychologist and author Sherry Turkle.
But there is a paradox. For even as social spaces become less social, we are sharing more than ever before on social media. We broadcast our favourite books, music and films widely, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Spotify, etc.
All of which makes for a peculiar situation vis-a-vis the woman with the Kindle sitting opposite me on the tram. It is quite possible there are people on the other side of the world who know what she is reading. But I don't, and I'm just a metre away.
Simon Castles is an Age producer.