The lady sitting opposite me on the train is reading a book called You Were Not Born to Suffer and though I know I shouldn’t, I judge her.
The theories about who she is and what she’s gone through begin to surface, unbidden, in my mind: she must have had a nervous breakdown, maybe a divorce, her husband had an affair with her best friend, she kicked him out, couldn’t keep up with the mortgage, now she’s living alone in a rented bedsit with cigarette burns in the carpets. She’s fallen behind at work, her boss keeps calling her in for ‘chats’ and as a last resort she’s turned to self-help books. This one’s her favourite. “Things don’t have to be this way,” she tells herself. She repeats her affirmations on the commute: “You were not born to suffer. You were not born to suffer.”
Our books are, after all, an extension of ourselves; just ask the New York Times, or The Guardian. Alex Clark writes in The Guardian that “Books, like clothes, music (should a bit of sound leak from our hi-tech earphones) and general demeanour, say something about who we are, who we would like people to think we are and who we ourselves aspire to be.”
Reading in public is, it seems, a bold statement. But these heart-on-their-sleeve commuters may not be around for long.
Many argue that, with the rise of e-readers, seeing someone reading an actual paper book will soon be a thing of the past. Dutch photographer Reinier Gerritsen decided to document the final hours of the trusty paperback in his series The Last Book; a collection of photographs of commuters reading on the New York City subway.
He, too, sees book choice as a declaration of identity and even began to see patterns in what sort of people travel where, when. He told Slate he found the L train to be the most intellectual route he photographed; “A lot of people are going to Brooklyn. They read certain books. There is a difference.”
As a follow up to The Last Book, Gerritsen returned to the subway to document those absorbed in their e-readers. He found the subject matter far less interesting and the resulting photographs are themselves, intrinsically less layered than the original series. This perhaps, for the Kindle-wielding commuter, is the point.
E-readers, despite their many obvious evils, provide two clear benefits; the first and most eulogised is portability, but the second is privacy. It’s no coincidence that 50 Shades of Grey sold so many e-copies; it’s the sort of book you might want to read, but not be seen to be reading because of how it might be construed. Mein Kampf is a digital bestseller too.
In Japan, where personal discretion and privacy are paramount, they have long had a simple yet effective method of avoiding unwanted judgment: bookshops offer a book covering service that disguises the telltale text beneath.
On publisher I.B. Tauris’ blog, Mai Kataota references anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s discussion of “Japan’s ‘shame culture’ – a sense of shame and anxiety attached to exposing a part of your identity. This is strongly present in Japan’s book culture. The driving force behind this is the reluctance to present one’s knowledge in front of people.” Unlike in Western culture, the shame is not derived from reading something you consider to be below your intelligence, conversely the Japanese do not want to be seen to be bragging about their more intellectual choices. Kataota gives the example that “university students tend to avoid reading English paperbacks on the train because they do not want to be perceived to be showing off their knowledge.”
But are we reading too much into reading?
The problem with our snap judgment of others based on their books is that it doesn’t take into account the myriad reasons one might read a book: an assignment, a book club, a dubious recommendation. Perhaps you know the author or are trying to broaden your mind or are going through an astronomy phase that you’ll have forgotten about by next week. What if the lady reading You Were Not Born to Suffer borrowed it from a friend as a joke and is even now picking apart its platitudes with her own brand of self-assured witticism?
We don’t know these people and one book can be a smoke screen as much as a window.
But perhaps both reading and stealing looks at the books of others are wasting the true potential of a train journey anyway. Train ride adventures are well-documented and cover the full gamut of human emotion, from the twee to the twisted. In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy fall in love on the train to Vienna whilst Wes Anderson’s trademark oddball family reconnect on the eponymous darjeeling limited as it travels across India. Meanwhile Highsmith hatches murderous plots onboard faster than Christie’s Poirot can solve them.
In Jenny Diski’s referentially-titled travelogue Stranger on a Train she rides around the US, experiencing the more vicarious and sedate adventure of both talking to strangers and listening in on their conversations. This is a much truer test of the lives of those around you than what people are reading.
Writers often say they never listen to music or read on public transport because that absorption blocks out the conversations going on close by, the real-life dialogue they can bank so that every journey becomes an exercise in career development.
I wouldn’t say I was unadventurous but, whilst romance and crime-solving both hold an obvious allure, eavesdropping is definitely my favourite commuter activity.
On the tube home from work once I sat across from a woman who had just picked her son up from prison. She handed him a can of Fosters. “It does taste better,” he said “when you’ve had some time away from it.” His mother opened her own can. “Tell you what though, it’s nice there,” the son continued, “Much better than some other places I been. They bring you everything. I had fucking lasagne, fucking hot chocolate, fucking anything you want.”
The next time you’re on your way to work, stop reading or watching and listen. Just listen to the people around you. Anything can happen. Fucking anything you want.
Image credit: Getty Images