Public Display of Reading

Someone is reading on the subway. Something heavy. A real book, something with weight, both literary and pound-wise. Reading publicly is rare nowadays. Becoming rarer, I think. So this post is a bit of a confession, a bit of an historical document.


If I see someone reading on the subway, and I mean an actual book of paper and ink, my first thought is generally unpleasant. While most people would nicely smile to themselves, maybe think, look, there are readers in the world, that’s nice. Maybe they’d start a conversation. Maybe take a moment out of their busy day to be glad that a New Yorker took their transport time to read something substantial, something longer than a tweet, possibly thought-provoking. Now this is the type of society I’d like to live in, these people might think. Then they might nod to the stranger, dip their hat, exit stage right. I don’t know. I’m not those people.

When I see someone reading a real, paper book on the train, my first reaction is contempt. Show-off, I think. I inwardly sneer. I start making a profile of the person in my mind, like, Mr. Publicly Reading Asshole thinks he’s so much better than us.

The-Art-of-Loving-by-Erich-FrommI speak to him directly in my mind. Look at you, look at your eyebrow crease. You must be thinking something really important.

You must be the next great inventor or scientist or underground artist.

You must think we’re all dumb, with our headphones and our vacant stares. You must think we’re mindless idiots, falling over one another and hanging onto poles.

Reader looks up, check what stop we’re are at. This annoys me.

So caught up that you lost track of time? Give me a break.

I get defensive. Yeah, I’m reading this Dr. Zizmor ad for the 15th time today. What’s it to you? Too good for affordable dermatology?

He flips the page. I start making excuses for myself.

Sure, I’m listening to Katy Perry while you read Pride and Prejudice, hardcover. But that doesn’t mean anything in the larger sense.

I read a newspaper yesterday.

I have like a million new podcasts I could be listening to. I could be listening to Pride and Prejudice.

on-the-left-shes-reading-The-Colossus-of-New-York-by-Colson-Whitehead.-on-the-right-hes-reading-Hornets-Nest-by-Patricia-Cornwel(I’m not listening to Pride and Prejudice.)

I could be listening to the Bible. I could be creating a new scientific theory in my mind right now, public reader dude.

I try to sneak a look at the inside of the book, hope Reader is hiding an US Weekly behind all those pages.

Damn. It’s the real deal.

I get sad about what this person will probably accomplish in life that I will not. They’ll probably graduate college in four years. Maybe go to med school. Or be lawyer. They’ll probably change the world for the better while I will probably be stuck on this train forever, Katy Perry whining in my ears, my own insecurities and self-doubt trying to climb their way inside another person’s innocent enjoyment of a wonderful novel.

The train stops. He closes his book, stands, exits. I clutch the rail, sway. Watch him exit.

Only then, very briefly, I appreciate that there are readers in the world. I appreciate that this public reader cracked open a real book with ink. That they didn’t mind lugging something so heavy all around the city. That they were too engrossed in the narrative to notice a stranger staring.

That stuff’s all good. That’s really great. I smile to myself. I sit down, and, now that I’m sitting, I reach in my bag for my own book.

AT4340-003I love readers, I’m still thinking. I wish there were more of them in the world.

I look up and around the crowded train. Book in hand, I eye the lady standing in front of me, passively staring at a boy in the opposite row of seats picking his nose. The man sitting next to me has rap music leaking out of his headphones, and he nods his head enthusiastically.

Look at these vacant-eyed, head-phoned assholes. I open to my bookmark. I bet none of them has ever read a book in their life.




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