Reading Books Underground (JR)

With the end of school mid-May, the start of summer employment, and my move to Brooklyn, I’ve been doing more of my reading underground. Specifically, in trains. Instead of feverish — if sporadic — two-hundred page evenings of devotion, I now wade through books as the tortoise, not the hare. Reading on trains, twice a day, on average 34 minutes per trip, has altered the texture of daily life, the ways I experience New York. Instead of being a slave to The Savage Detectives, I cohabitate with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 2666. Fewer late nights in the living room on the couch, having been kicked out of the bedroom by my employed girlfriend, unable to not keep following Arturo Belano and our collective fate of obscurity, (or worse, happenstance notoriety) through Mexico, Europe, and South America, the atmosphere occasionally ruptured by poltergeists driving death-laden semis, shaking the apartment.

Even askance glances at other commuters are changed. My aesthetics heightened to some absurd transcendent level where it feels like I understand the totality of everyone around me, their inner sum from their appearance. Or maybe I don’t feel I understand anything at all, but merely take in the passengers’ appearances in a hungry, superficial visual chomp. I smile. Even if it’s illusion, I laugh at all of us. Or at least that’s what 2666 has done to me.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is best read on trains while hungover, or drained as you pass with Murakami through dreams within dreams until you are play acting the underground voyage from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the chaotic morning transfer from L to 4, 5 at Union Square with 15 stairwells, dozens of passengers’ paths intersecting at obtuse angles,* the packed morning quiet save the mantras we know by heart, whose timbre and pitch follow us throughout the day: “Stand clear of the closing doors please!” “The next Manhattan-bound L train will depart in approximately 2 minutes.” The LEDs scroll up to “the conductor deems it safe,” or, “machine in your station” and stop. The conductor deems what safe? What machine in my station? They’ve gone beyond putting marginally useful reminders about watching your bags to bizarre statements thought up by a graduate semiotics student stuck in a short-sleeved-oxford-shirt-kind-of desk job, subverting when he can. Such is Murakami’s world. Everyone stares at something not particular at all something at an indeterminate, unfocused midpoint beyond the subway walls. Minds full of work or domestic disputes, or totally empty, who can really say. I shift weight and switch hands on the ceiling bar, putting Murakami in my other hand, careful not to close the large book and lose my page, remembering the page in case. New Yorkers read the best stuff on trains. DC it’s all newspapers: the morning Metro paper, the Times or Post, maybe an inside-the-beltway publication. Manila they don’t read on trains — nor Buenos Aires, unless its the Ferrovias train from Retiro, not the subway, and you’re riding in the evening when kids sell the free paper for spare change. New Yorkers read novels — often good novels — on the subway. Jonathan Franzen, eat your heart out.

It’s difficult not to be self-conscious about carrying around a book, especially those with distinctive covers. While I seek the company of like-minded readers, I don’t want to keep it like an ID card, even if it does balance out my corporate ID badge and business casual. (These things seem to matter on the L train at 8:30am.) I like to talk to other people but I’m not desperate. So I carry the book, cover facing my body. And then there’s the girl whom I noticed before I got off at the Broadway Nassau stop, reading The Savage Detectives. “You liking it?” I ask, my Murakami cover facing toward me when she stole a quick glance. “Yes.” I got little else out of her. So much for like-minded readers. It wasn’t even pretextual. Whatever.

*Like some sort of old-school video game, maybe Frogger, but with special Y-axis passageways, so maybe like a repressed Donkey Kong, though sometimes the erratic paths and droll faces of commuters have more in common with Pac Man ghosts.

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3 responses to “Reading Books Underground (JR)

  1. Loving this. Usually when I look around on the subway, I’m blown away by how many people are reading actual books. I don’t know what it is about this city, or this subway, or this lifestyle here in this place, that makes reading happen. But it certainly does. Also, I was carrying 2666 on the train until I realized that I was reading as a one-for-one substitute for writing, and so now I’m making myself carry a notebook on the train.

  2. oh man, i miss this about nyc! i loved noticing trends in what people were reading depending on the subway line, and seeing which books were the best conversation-starters. m.f.k. fisher’s “an alphabet for gourmets” was a surefire one.

  3. 2666 on the train!

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