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I saw an image on Missed Connections few days ago, and the image text is:

Friday, January 29, 2010 - m4w - 23 (L train)

How did you get those bruises? I wouldn't let anything happen to you. You were reading some book, and taking notes. I read a book once.

And I saw people comment below that the last sentence "I read a book once" is really sad... but I don't quite understand the hidden meaning of that sentence.

Thanks for your help.

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Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you started. –  Tom Au Apr 27 '12 at 20:21
    
This is a sort of "low-brow litcrit" question. Checking the context, I suppose all it means is the "author" is expressing a kind of "depressive's camaraderie" with the pictured waif. The preceding "I wouldn't let anything happen to you" looks like a gawky "chat-up line", so "I read a book once" can be taken as a socially inept attempt by the "author" to find something in common with the subject. A bit like "Do you come here often? I went out for a drink once before." –  FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 21:43
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7 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The writer of the "missed connection" note is grasping at straws (<- useful English expression) to create some kind of connection to the person whom he encountered on the L train. He knows nothing about her other than that she was reading a book and had some bruises. "I read a book once" is a clumsy, funny way of saying, "Hey, I have something in common with you! You obviously read books, because I saw you reading. And you know what? Some time in my past, amazingly, I also read a book! (So that's enough for you to contact me and maybe we can go on a date.)"

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I'm not convinced this question should even be here, but yes - imho that's a good summary of the not-so-hidden meaning of the sentence. The "grammatical" issue of whether I only ever read one single book in my whole life is rather irrelevant, given the context. –  FumbleFingers Apr 28 '12 at 1:50
    
Thank you Kaz for helping me understand fully that simple phrase. –  Quynh Nguyen May 2 '12 at 15:23
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It’s saying the speaker has only read one book ever.

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This is a reference to a classic joke; I could have sworn that I remembered it from a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Carver novel, but I may have invented that memory. The oldest version I can find is in a British TV sitcom called Porridge (slang for "prison", where the show is set.):

Heslop: I read a book once. Green, it was.

YouTube clip

The joke is that there's an expected meaning: "once upon a time, I read a book; I have presumably read many others" - but it's immediately contradicted by an unexpected meaning: "I've only ever read one book, and it was green." The second meaning is obviously not true - I don't think it's actually possible for a person to read exactly one book in his life - but it would certainly be sad if it were true.

Edit: I remembered where I'd first heard this joke: Jimmy Durante's 1947 song The Day I Read a Book. Very funny!

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I want to add that while this is the correct origin of this phrase, the usage in the cited context is decidedly more, uh, meta: it assumes the reader knows of the joke, and knows that the writer has read way more than one book and is using the phrase as a kind of "grasping at straws" "Look, we have something in common" pickup line. (As some of the other answers have pointed out.) As such, it's definitely not very funny in the cited context. –  Marthaª Apr 30 '12 at 21:47
    
@Marthaª - I was referring to Jimmy Durante, not to the creepy dude who posted the ad the OP was asking about. Him, I don't find funny at all at all. –  MT_Head Apr 30 '12 at 21:58
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When you say, "I did X once", that can mean, "I did X at some time in the past", or "I did X exactly one time."

The phrase is often used in the first sense to introduce a subject. Like, "I went to Chicago once," followed by an account of what you did there. In that case it doesn't necessarily mean that you only did it one time. You are just bringing up one particular time that you did it.

It's a fairly common joke to say, "I did X once" as if you were about to use it in the first sense and go on to describe a particular incident, and then just stop, thus converting the meaning into the second sense, I did this only one time. Or sometimes make some comment following up on the idea of it being only once. If it's an activity that people would expect you to do more than one time, this might potentially be funny if the line is delivered well. "I went to work once. I decided I didn't like it." Etc.

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I believe the correct context is "I read a book once UPON A TIME." (not one time)

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You believe that, on what basis? In fact the question happens to include all the context that's available. Each of Sophie Blackall's drawings on the blog is based on a "missed connection" classified ad. –  jwpat7 Apr 27 '12 at 20:56
    
@jwpat7: The speaker seemed to be saying, "I was reading this book, and X happened." And most stories begin with "once upon a time..." –  Tom Au Apr 28 '12 at 4:10
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Thank you very much for giving us a link so we have some context to answer your question.

I think some of the people posting comments on that site were sad about the girl in the image having bruises (presumably because of abuse). And I think that "I read a book once." means that the guy, whose thoughts/words these are, is admitting that he's not much of a reader, especially compared with her studiously taking notes on a book she's reading. I would guess that he's probably understating his history of reading to make a point. At least one commenter stated specifically that she found the fact that he had perhaps read only one book in his life sad. (I find that sad too. But not as sad as a girl suffering abuse.)

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Perhaps he hit the send button before completing the sentence: "I read a book once a month".

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No. This is not it. –  Matt Эллен Apr 27 '12 at 21:56
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