Reading in Public: An Elegy


I was riding the F train home the other day reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The local went express at Jay Street in Brooklyn, and I exchanged an exasperated smile with a woman on the platform. “Is that good?” she asked, pointing to the book. “I’ve been meaning to read it.” I called Whitehead’s disturbing way of mixing history and invention in his novel about slavery, “steampunk abolitionist” and she liked that. Manners obliging, I asked what she was reading. “Something with Ove in the title.” It was funny in surprising ways, but she couldn’t remember the name. We agreed nothing induces amnesia like being asked what you’re reading. The name and author came to her on the local. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Bachman. I promised to look it up. I got off at the next stop feeling rich for our impromptu book club, and grateful for a moment of literary communion that’s all but disappeared.

Used to be, you could look up and down the aisles of a subway train and see everyone reading—and learn a little about them by what they read—where they were from, what interested them. Sports, business, the arts, crime. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post. There were ethnic papers in Russian, Polish, various Indian languages, Italian, Chinese, Spanish. People read The Bible and prayer books in English, Spanish, French and Hebrew, romance novels, self-help books, non-fiction, and literary novels. Years ago, I looked up from A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov—a 1950s copy I’d filched from my parents with a lime-green Edward Gorey cover and saw a woman across from me reading the same. We smiled conspiratorially.

More recently, but still quite a long time ago—July 21, 2007, the day the last Harry Potter novel came out, kids, teens, grownups of all ages were bent over the thick volume, its distinctive orange and ochre cover replicated up and down the car, in a kind of hall of mirrors effect. What a moment of cross-generational literary fellowship. It made me feel truly joyful.

Nowadays, most peope are on their phones in an illusory private bubble. Fellow riders see only an illuminated rectangle, while disembodied corporate snoops—advertisers, Amazon, Apple, Google, hackers—take down every title we buy, all our personal information, and sell it and what they think it says about us. They harass us electronically to do their marketing by telling us we’re part of a great electronic community. Do us a teeny little favor. Rate this book. Review it on our site. Your opinion matters to us. “Like” us. Tell your “friends”.

Reading a book or magazine in public initiates a conversation. “It’s not true!” a woman once yelled at me across the F train. I was reading The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report from Behind the Lines by Tanya Melich. “Yes it is,” I said, pleasantly, though more often, our natural reticence gets the better of us. But the sight of someone else reading makes me curious. I want to know if the book’s as good as the review said—or as bad. If the reader fits my notion of someone who reads that book or that magazine. There are still a few readers on the trains. Why only this morning, a well-dressed man wearing a nicely cut black overcoat was reading The New York Post, a Murdoch paper, while the ordinary Joe next to him was reading The New York Times. The stylish fellow sighed, put the paper down, then pulled a subway map out of his bag. Ah, an out-of-towner. Maybe he didn’t know that people who dress like him are supposed to read The New York Times. Maybe that’s the problem. Behind their well-dressed exteriors, millions of people have been gorging on propaganda. Maybe we would have been less shocked at the election’s outcome if we could have seen what people were reading.

Reading openly feels like an expression of community more than ever. Books have defined communities—unifying and dividing them since the invention of writing. We believe in this book, you follow that scroll. Love of reading has a unifying power. If you love a book, the natural inclination is to tell to someone about it. “You must read this. It’s so great.”

Shortly after the election, the owners of Brooklyn’s beloved independent bookstore, Bookcourt on Court Street in Cobble Hill, announced their decision to retire on December 31, 2016. The timing was a coincidence, but it felt like technology and Trump had conspired to kill it. In fact, the store was doing fine. The owners, Henry M. Zook and Mary B. Gannett, simply decided to retire after 35 years. They had talked about passing on the business, but the deal to sell the building required them to deliver it empty, Mary told me. It’s hard running a small business. They were open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Most of the hardware stores, bodegas, variety stores, and other basic businesses have been replaced by chains (clothing, coffee shops, and Doc-in-a-Box medical practices), nail salons, doggie care emporia, and for-profit nursery schools. But Bookcourt seemed invincible. In this concentrated community of readers, writers, editors, journalists, and agents, Bookcourt held out against the chains and Amazon. In 2008, the owners had expanded the space for the third time. Every night, there were readings by writers at every career stage, from Jonathan Lethem to people who had just published their first story in a literary magazine.  The Common held its first public event, a reading, there in 2011. Bookcourt was a required stop on the reading circuit for new books, a place to encounter writer friends and celebrate their books, and find out what people were reading. The much larger Barnes & Noble a few blocks away was a place to buy French design magazines or travel guides or SAT prep books or a book my kids needed for English. But for real reading, Bookcourt was the place. I was out of the country when it closed. I ran into Mary a few days after New Year’s and told her irrationally it felt like the Trump takeover had killed it along with everything else that was good—to which she graciously replied with a sad smile, “Please, don’t say that.” I apologized. She said there was hope that someone else would open a bookstore in the neighborhood. There’s no more propitious location in the country, certainly. Brooklyn is the literary borough par excellence. But larger chain stores have been encroaching on the neighborhood driven by the proliferation of high rises. Rents have become prohibitively expensive for local, one-of-a-kind stores.

Now, when I walk to the train, thinking I’ll stop in for something to read and pass the empty store, I feel as though the front teeth have been knocked out of the neighborhood.  The windows are covered with brown paper. A kind letter from Henry and Mary thanks the community for its support and explains gently that it was time for them to move on. They were one class act, as we also said of the Obamas.

I guess I should be grateful we have a Barnes & Noble. The Bronx Barnes & Noble recently closed, leaving the borough of 200,000 with no general interest bookstores. But I haven’t bought from ours, which is in Brooklyn Heights, since Bookcourt closed. It’s large. The fiction section is upstairs. The cashiers’ lines are long. There’s no running in and out. And the tacky merchandising—toy spinoffs from books that were made into movies, Godiva chocolates, (to devour while reading Fifty Shades of Grey on your Nook?), and other kitschy paraphernalia—puts me off. More and more, I find myself reading The Washington Post or The New York Times on my phone on the train. The firehose delivery of awful news has undermined my attention span. I can hardly read a book or write for more than five minutes without charging back for another fibrillator jolt of outrage. I look around on the train and wonder how many people feel the same way. In New York, probably a lot, but it’s not much comfort. If I could see what the people around me were reading, it might spark a conversation, a moment of communion. I might get a good book recommendation, if nothing else.


Julia Lichtblau is Book Review Editor for The Common. Her writing is forthcoming in the American Fiction Prize anthology and has appeared in The American Scholar,Blackbird, Narrative, and other publications. 

Reading in Public: An Elegy

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