Historically, Chatroulette is a site centered on giving dudes an anonymous place to display their dicks to an endless stream of strangers. Guys who aren’t showing their dicks are often waiting to see a dick or talking shit to the guys with their dicks out or, perhaps most often, trying to convince the significantly smaller population of females to get naked too. People who aren’t on Chatroulette for any of the above reasons often seem to not know why they’re there, aside from the fact that sometimes doing nothing online is the center of the spectacle itself, and that Chatroulette is a great place to run into some real freaks. The other night I fell into the latter camp and decided I’d turn on my cam and sit there holding up random books from around my apartment in hopes of getting some of these bros’ opinions on contemporary literature. Here’s what happened.
This guy hardly moved at all. Somehow he was typing without even rustling his silk shirt—it was as if he could type by thinking. He actually talked to me for longer than most of the other people I encountered. I asked him if he ever masturbates while reading erotic novels like Little Red Riding Bitch, and he said no, never, as that would ruin the experience. He said he would check out the Wayne Koestenbaum book on Andy Warhol I was holding up because he likes art.
This guy was just sitting there when our screens popped up. He was kind of open-mouthed and staring the way ~70 percent of people do while browsing. When he saw me holding the book up he immediately got his knife out and kind of brandished it at the screen as if he could cut me through the wires and the glass. Over the course of the evening there were at least half a dozen dudes like this one who became abstractly “violent” toward the camera, including one Turkish man who alternated between pretending to punch me and trying to set the camera on fire with a lighter. I asked this knife kid if he knew what the thing was that I was holding up and he replied, “my penis.”
This guy, my second of the night wearing red silk, was easily the most chill of all the bros I talked to. I’m pretty sure this was based on him hoping we could take the conversation elsewhere over time—his approach was decidedly more “romantic” than the other I’m-already-wanking bros. I asked him what he liked about the last book he remembered reading, Jurassic Park, and he explained: “It was just really in depth with the description of what the dinosaurs looked like… and it made me feel like I was there at one point.” I asked if he remembered any other books besides Jurassic Park and he said, “Uhhh not really.” He said he was totally into reading my Gordon Lish book, though, and could I send it to him at his home in North Carolina? Which really isn’t far at all from where I live in Atlanta, he pointed out. I promised to mail him the book.
The next bro was markedly less compelled by the same prospect.
This guy held the pose above without expression or speech for something like 20 minutes straight. No matter how hard I tried to provoke him—even when I disappeared from the frame—he didn’t break his general expression. I thought it was a loop at first, but when I would point at the book or ask him questions, he’d very calmly nod, just enough to show he was alive; otherwise he just sat beside his little pretend sun and stared. This guy doesn’t need literature, clearly, as he’s already a T.C. Boyle book in his mind.
I have to admit, I was surprised at the percentage of people who stuck around to chat with a guy holding up a book. Most of the people I talked to claimed to be interested in reading, even if they weren’t up to date with any books beyond what they were probably assigned to read in school.
One dude listening to techno in Russia said that though he couldn’t stand to read things like Borges because “he broke my head,” he really loved Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain (and even provided me Wikipedia links to both authors, in case I was unfamiliar). When I suggested maybe it was good to have your head broken by a book sometimes, he told me: “No. My country broke my head every day. I don’t have free space on it,” and went on to describe how he’d spent a month in prison after being arrested for taking part in a protest against the Russian government.
Another girl proudly showed me her copy of The Brothers Karamazov, her favorite book, and a bleached blond German girl, who was spending her birthday on Chatroulette, was all about Goethe. These people made me feel like reading isn’t as dead in the world as some would argue, even on a site created to enable people to expose themselves to strangers.
Though for every book-friendly user in the chat stream I had to wade through a pretty heavy flood of bros, most of whom would click onto the next user the second they saw me there with my clothes on and a book in my hand. They would, of course, offer a portrait of their gut book-instinct first: