Those readers in the train

Lily Furedi: Subway, 1934
Lily Furedi: Subway, 1934 (Photo credit: americanartmuseum)

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.

path train
path train (Photo credit: c. bueno)

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?

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79 thoughts on “Those readers in the train”

  1. There are the readers, the non-readers and the listeners. Those with headphones, what are they listening to? Music? Podcast? Audio book?
    I used to work in a bookshop and I loved being on the train and seeing what books people would lose themselves into. I’d have a little smile and think “he he, I know what you’re reading.”
    You learn a lot by seeing what people read. Just the other day, I would have sworn that guy was English but he was reading a book in Russian. Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t English but which sure brought another dimension to him.
    Is the book they’re reading new? Well thumbed? Second hand?
    Damn you. Now I really miss people reading real books on the train.

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  2. I love my Kindle and take it with me in my purse whenever I know I might have to wait—on a long flight, for an appointment, standing in line, on a friend who is a slow shopper. I’ve become a stranger to the public library I used to visit at least once a week to pick up 5 or 6 books—and read them all in time to turn them in and pick up new ones the next week. Still, last week I made a special trip to the bookstore and purchased four books because I miss holding a real book in my hands, and the smell of the ink and pages. There is something about a book that a Kindle doesn’t capture. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

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  3. great post – I’m old school and i have no plans to get a kindle, i love my paperback collection too much but for some reason I cannot read whilst moving, so i tend to just look out the window

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  4. One afternoon on Yamanote Line in Tokyo I sat opposite a man in his early forties, unruley long hair, tweed jacket, jumper and courdroy trousers. On his lap he had a leather folder with sheet music in it. He was reading the music, one hand lightly cunducting the notes in his head. Then his enthusiasm grew and with eyes slightly closed he comanded the whole orchestra up a notch. Quickly flipping the page, he brought the music down a little into calmer waters. He suddenly stopped, flipped a few pages then he was off on a march, tapping his finger on the leather folder. He didn’t need batteries.

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  5. Loved reading this, so well observed and written, but it also made me a bit nostalgic and even a tad fearful. Things are changing SO fast at the moment. Last time I was in London people were still reading books and newspapers on the tube but I don’t doubt if I went there again now there would be far fewer. I’m also not sure I want to write for nor sacrifice my own attention span to a new way of being that is so fast and distracting we dip in and out of whatever we’re doing, or whoever we’re being.

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  6. I’ve been retired for 22 years, so I don’t travel to work. But I love my Kindle, and always have it when I have to wait, say to see a doctor. I haven’t read a heavy paperback of the 600+ page type since I have had the Kindle. It’s kinder on my arthritic hands.

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  7. One of the main reasons I bought my Kindle is because it is a chore to hold onto a hand rail, hold a book still, and turn the page. Instead, I just rub my thumb against a button. Bliss. Plus my 1 lb. gadget is much easier to hold than an 800 page book. (Darn you Dickens) And finally, I get to brag that our buses are half books, half e-readers. We’re clinging to our paperbacks, darnit.
    I would argue that most blogs are ideal bus-reading. Easy to pick up and put down without getting lost in what chapter you were in or if you missed a plot point. Solid stuff, oh blogger fellow.

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    1. Yes. There’s something abnormal about really thick books. Say Dickens’ Bleak House, for example. But then, they were published in instalments so they weren’t that awkward originally. When we complain about old ways of reading disappearing, we have to remember that those old ways may not be all that old!

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  8. I love spying on people by sneaking furtive glances at the spines and covers of their “traditional” books. Yet, maybe the kindle and it’s ilk don’t need to spell an end to my snooping; I’ll just need to get creative (and maybe closer).

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    1. I’m 65, and old enough to know better, but I heard about 50 Shades of Grey from my step-daughter, who assured me it wasn’t at all what people had been saying about it. Curious, I purchased it for my Kindle. This past weekend I took a friend for an appointment to have her laptop fixed. I knew it would take some time, so I took my trusty Kindle. When she went into the store, I parked myself on a nearby bench and opened to the first chapter. Less than an hour later, as Grey was sucking on Anastasia’s toes, I realized there was a young man standing close to me and reading over my shoulder. Oh my. I turned 50 shades of red and promptly closed out of that book and opened one that I wasn’t embarrassed to be caught reading! (my reading companion promptly left)

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  9. Important observations for writers who hope to be (or remain) marketable. I can still be found on the train with a paperback, but it has more to do with budget constraints than attachment to the pages. As a NYer whose life has gotten consistently busier, I love the opportunity to get at least a few pages read on the train as I lurch from point A to point B. 🙂

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  10. Felt like I was right there with you on the train! If I were there I would be a Reader, holding a book, who knew she would get a headache from the jarring movement, but read anyway. 🙂

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  11. I’m one of the few who still carry paperbacks. I love how they feel! I can see the appeal and how convenient e-readers are, but I can’t tear myself away from a real book. It is more awkward to read though if you’re limited in space.

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  12. Interesting you mentioned that the non-readers look at each other, then away when eye contact is made. I suppose one positive with the loss of interaction with the readers is you can gawk at them indiscriminately and without fear of the brief and awkward locking eyes.

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  13. Thank you for liking my post ‘Humanity: The fall, what to expect in chapter 5’ I have to say that I really love the way you have written this post, it really speaks to me. I hope you enjoy reading the new chapter of my novel that I shall be posting later on

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  14. Anything that keeps people reading is a good thing. Of course, those people are probably texting and facebooking and gameplaying, all things you can do on the latest e-readers and tablets. I confess I used to read on the can, now I usually play games on my iPhone. 🙂 However, I always have an audiobook in my ear so it comes out even. What I do miss is newspapers. I get my news online now, and feel guilty for not paying for it.

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  15. I love the way you wrote the article….I miss the “old days” of reading actual books..in fact I can’t seem to get the hang out of reading books any other way. The smell of the paper and ink, the feel of the paper….holding a book…it’s all part of the act of reading for me. I hope that the book with actual pages doesn’t ever disappear…that would be a sad sad day….

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  16. Such an interesting post! I myself am a paperback book girl. I don’t own a kindle, ipad, smartphone, etc. All my friends love their’s and swear I would “never go back”, but give me the feel of a book in my hands and I’m a happy person. I love to look at what people are reading. I don’t take the train, but I notice it when I’m in waiting areas…the doctor, the DMV, jury duty. It tells you a little about your fellow waiters, and it can start up some actual conversations. I wonder if Kindles will change this?

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  17. I never leave home without my paperback, all lovingly creased and bent back. I am not one of these readers who preserve books as I read so they still look new by the end of it.. I thoroughly enjoy them. I am an expert at balance and book and can turn pages one handed. And I can still observe the passing world from over the top. A paperback is a great disguise. Long live the paperback!

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  18. At least we get the chance to read the faces now; perhaps more useful to the writer in us all. I write flash fiction amongst other things which is perfectly suited to the jolted, disjointed, rush hour reader.

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  19. Most likely, these people are checking statuses on Facebook or Tweets from all of the people that they follow. It is an interesting concept to examine what kind of texts that people still take the time to read. In the age of technology we live in, I feel numerous people would prefer to surf the web and reading short things such as a Tweet rather than to dive into a book, regardless of the medium they read it through. It seems as though the more technology interacts with literature (no matter what type), the shorter and quicker the texts become to keep pace with our high speed lifestyles.

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  20. Lovely post, but a bit tragic too. At-least for a passionate reader like myself. I have nothing against e readers, i have a kindle. But, if given the choice i would pick paperback every time. I want to write for the reader who is committed. Not for the reader who is distracted. Sadly, in a few years , that’s the only type of reader will we have left. People reading on the go. But, my heart yearns for paperback reading. To hold a book, get comfy and loose yourself in a different world, a different time. To become so emotionally invested reality is forgotten. I’m the type of reader that has a hard time starting a new read simply because I can’t “leave” the world of previous series. Technology is changing everything, even the way we read.

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  21. I’m not averse to people reading via their Kindles. A read’s a read, you know? But I’ve always been fascinated to know what people are reading when they’re riding the train. When I used to ride the NYC subway, there was always a book in my hands and a Walkman blasting music to my ears, and yet I was always scanning to see what other passengers were reading.

    Now the mystery’s lost with all those devices and whatnot. So I strain my neck to see if that nice lady with the Nook is reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

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      1. That’s an excellent story! Something similar happened to me many years ago, when I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint” on the subway ride to work. I was sitting next to this little old lady, looking very prim. I noticed she’d been glancing at what I was reading.

        All hell nearly broke loose when I got to the part with the words “C*NT CRAZY,” in bold letters. She saw that, and hissed loudly, “That’s disgusting!” She then proceeded to scold me over reading such “filth.”

        The next station could not have come any sooner, even if it wasn’t my stop.

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  22. “Promiscuous readers”: that’s why I prefer short stories, whether I am moving or stationary. But I suppose what you describe is why there has always been such a thing as “airport reading”, or “train reading” — Grisham, and the like. Something to occupy you, without taking so much of your attention that you miss your flight or your stop.

    I don’t think that the medium (paper or e-reader) makes as much difference as the situation. You can still read “War and Peace” on a Kindle. And I’d hate to think that someday people wouldn’t…

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  23. A wonderful post; I find it utterly fascinating all reading is done electronically. What a telling factoid, also a bit sad, not so much for papers, but books. However, when I go to the eye doc, I pull out my iPod, then receive a small glare from my doc; that’s an awfully small screen, she sighs.

    I want to say; you should see the size of the Pocket book fonts I used to read! 🙂

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  24. Thanks – that brings back memories of my commuting days in London, before moving to a tiny rock in the sea, although in those days it was all papers and books! How awkward now that all faces are seen, with nothing to hide behind.

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  25. I’m a NYC subway commuter so I guess I’m used to the jolts and have adapted. I still read paper books on the commute but am also reading The Big Sleep on my phone. I cannot believe how I love reading on my phone. Never thought it would happen. Easy on the eyes despite the smaller print and easy to hold and turn the pages with the thumb of the same hand that holds the phone. I recommend it! Raymond Chandler is a great choice for fits and starts reading, as you described. kind of matches his writing style 🙂 The great thing is that so many more people are reading. Much more than last year!

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  26. Interesting… The times are most definitely changing..!
    So much information, and so little time. I have found myself a-googling for information, and being bombarded with sites adding knowledge. What the answer is, how we shall read in future, what we shall read, is up in the air quietly arranging itself. It will fall, eventually, and we shall adjust ourselves. To answer your question: I feel the writers of today must be prepared to re-arrange their virtues. The reader must be enthralled, and not bored. Perhaps short stories are the go….

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  27. I find myself less and less committed to a single 10 page New Yorker article, let alone a book. And I think it’s got a lot more to do with the e-reader culture than my ADHD. I do think the writing should evolve to catch up with the ‘promiscuous’ times!

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  28. The picture you painted was so vivid for me! What it reminded me of was my tendency to look at windows of high risers, imagining what it must be to look out from them. Kind of like how you were wondering what people were reading…and I feel like that is one of the values of mystery.
    It gives our imaginations so much room to paint a picture of what we think is going on.
    I remember reading that one of the reasons 50 Shades got so popular was because of the privacy that the e-readers offer. Nobody knows what anyone else is reading..such an interesting world!
    Perhaps someday, you will get a pair of those Google glasses, and not have to worry about holding anything in your hands at all! 🙂

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