Where and when do you make time to read? If your answer is “at Chipotle,” then you can leave now. This article isn’t for you. You should also just move along if your answer is “beside a crackling fire in my study.” I don’t know who you are. Why are you reading a blog? Isn’t there a hedge fund you should be managing?
No, for me there are only three acceptable, and interesting, answers to that question. The first is “in bed.” I can’t read in bed, but there are many who manage it with great success. A friend of mine says he read a whole J.G.A. Pocock book in bed, which must be a lie. I can’t even read about J.G.A. Pocock without at least my leg falling asleep. The second respectable answer is “while walking.” I actually do this pretty often when the weather is nice. There aren’t many of us who read books while walking. We’re a small group and quite proud of ourselves despite the fact we just banged our collective knee into a fire hydrant.
So that leaves the third, and I think most interesting, way to read: “on public transportation.”
Right now, no matter when you’re reading this, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of commuters and travelers making time to read. Reading simply couldn’t have been done in this manner and on this scale in any other period in the world’s history. In the mid-nineteenth century, W.H. Smith & Son opened the first train station newsstands and bookshops, selling cheap paperbacks which were themselves a product of new industrialized manufacturing processes. They’re still the dominant model of English-language readership and bookselling, and none of them could exist without the affordable and rapid transit of people and goods via railway. That resulted in a new type of reading for a new type of reader.
And in some small but crucial part, reading was–and is–our way of coping with this new, loud, rushing world. Modern travel makes sense conceptually, but not physically or emotionally. Think about being on the subway or on an airplane. You’re deep underground, or you’re thirty thousand feet in the air. What’s outside the window gives you no clue as to where you are. You have no control over where you’re going or how you’re getting there. Your entire body—including the caveman part of your brain that’s demanding an explanation—is entrusted to the machine. The words on the page might as well be rosary beads. They are the litany of our trust in technology. “I’m going to be OK. I’m going to be OK.” They are a connection to a more stable world.
But there are simpler explanations for why we read on the train. Being stuck on public transportation for anything more than two minutes is boring, so you need something entertaining that won’t annoy your fellow travelers. A book fits the bill. (Though a smartphone or tablet equipped with headphones and Adventure Time cartoons is quickly and understandably filling its place.)
This also might be the only time you can find to read all day. Someone else is in charge for once. This is your time off. The last thing you want to do is talk to your fellow passengers, or, like in this horrifying scene from It Happened One Night, sing with them:
Then there’s what I like to call the Game of Tomes. Among the numberless faces on the train, reading becomes a way of reinforcing your identity. The book you choose is the flag of your disposition. There’s a barley-bearded student reading Martha Nussbaum. There’s a professional looking woman reading Ancillary Justiceby Ann Leckie. I’m reading The Blue Flower again because it’s the best. You’re showing what you’ve got, what you’re about, what you’re capable of. It’s like Goodreads but IRL.
You can’t play the Game if you’re using an e-reader, but you can hide the fact you’re reading the complete SEALs of Winter. For less smooth, standing-room-only rides like on the subway or bus, the e-reader lets you read with one hand while keeping yourself steadied with the other. E-readers and smartphones are a perfect adaptation of the book to the jostling speed of modern travel. I’d be more worried about the future of reading if they didn’t exist.
But no matter where or when you’re reading, being a reader is about making the time to read. It’s never something you are; it’s always just something you do. Fine, you can read in a Chipotle. But you aren’t a literary person because your burrito bag says so, amigo. Action is authenticity. So keep reading, you readers, wherever you are and wherever you’re going.
Tim Ellison is an Advisory Editor for fiction and poetry at Strangelet. He writes about contemporary poetry at timreadspoetry.com and spends too much time at Twitter (@timothyjellison). He and his wife, Amy, live in Boston.