I’ve been waiting a long time for the PATH train at a station in Jersey City. The train will take me under the Hudson river to mid-town Manhattan. It arrives at last and I get in.
It’s not rush hour exactly though not everyone has got a seat. But it’s not so packed right now that someone will trample over your toes or elbow you out of their way to push themselves into or out of the train.
I notice a curious sight.
A lot of people sitting or standing inside the train are reading. Those that are sitting have greater freedom to hold something in their hands. So they have their iPads out scrolling through material intently as they hold the device in one hand and scroll through the page with the other. Some are selecting music.
Those standing are reading too. Some have efficiently taken up their positions next to the doors on the opposite side that they know will not open for several more stations to come. They are leaning against those doors and holding their Kindles with both hands.
Those that couldn’t take a spot in this area have hooked their arms around a metal rod each. They are reading from their e-readers while also balancing themselves with every jolt that the train makes.
Some, the least balanced of the lot, are holding onto the soft straps hanging from the overhead rods while reading from their Smartphones, which they are holding in their other hand. They are balancing themselves rather precariously, swaying from the soft loops with every little movement of the train.
There is almost no one reading a paperback novel or the newspaper. Consequently, all faces are visible and very few sheets of paper are left behind on the trains when people empty out at 33rd street although I do see a few stray plastic bottles or the odd banana peel still on the seats.
As for the others in the train, those that are not reading from a screen, they look rather conscious of each other in a closed space. Some look surreptitiously at the people sitting on the opposite side. They shift their gaze as soon as there is eye contact. Some stare at their own shoes or feet to avoid such inadvertent connections with fellow passengers.
The doors are closed. There is complete darkness outside. In this closed space, everyone is conscious of the rest without acknowledging the presence of others.
But I feel a palpable consciousness of difference all around, especially because there are relatively few passengers. The difference is that between the readers and the non-readers. The readers have an option between being here and not being here. Mostly, they have chosen to not be here.
The non-readers are the ones left behind. They don’t know what the readers are reading. Is it news? There is no newspaper. Is it paperback fiction? There is no paperback with cheap, yellowed pages. Is it classic literature, a tabloid or something else? No pictures, no book covers, no yellowed pages, no glossy paper.
Only the sound of the train and these readers and non-readers.
I am one of those unfortunate people who have little balance even on a stationary train leave alone in a moving one. So I simply stare at the darkness shifting backwards outside and listen to the sound of the train. I wonder, “What are they reading? Are they reading stories? Or essays? Or brief excerpts of things?”
I know that people have been carrying paperbacks in their bags for as far back as we can remember and reading in airports, trains, buses, parks, squares, everywhere. A short mystery novel, a romance paperback, today’s newspaper or a glossy magazine.
But these people I see balanced holding onto the handrail could be carrying anything from epics to hardback editions of encyclopedias in additions to magazines or newspapers in their e-readers. They could be moving back and forth between books and between pages of books, between emails and pictures and so many other things.
They have entire libraries at their disposal as they have adapted to reading all kinds of material in spurts on the go. Because when we’re moving, we can’t choose when we start reading and we we stop or what we’re doing alongside and when the next jolt will come.
But we’re not necessarily reading light stuff all the time. We could be really involved in the page.
For those of us telling new stories for this new age, will we also have to tell our stories in fits and starts and accept the idea that our readers may be moving in and out of our pages browsing others while paying us some attention?
Are we going to tell our new stories in new ways for these new promiscuous readers on the go?