what new yorkers are reading on the subway

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

C Train going underground between Brooklyn and Manhattan
Stephen, an audio engineer, first read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers ten years ago. What a brilliant idea, to reread this novel. When I think that she wrote it when she was 23, I want to give up my own writing. It's a beautiful story set in a small town in Georgia. I too hadn't read it in a long time, maybe 20 years not 10. I remember the deaf mute and the girl, but little else. Stephen, however, has a good memory and rarely rereads books. The last book he read on the train which he loved as much as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is 100 Years of Solitude, another novel that deserves rereading.


Manhattan bound Brooklyn C train
Sellevision is a "humorous" novel by memoirist Augustin Burroughs. about TV shopping networks, according to Brook, a fund raiser for a non-profit agency. Email becomes important to the plot, as does a woman's facial hair. Burroughs is one of her favorite authors, Brook says. He has written Writing With Scissors, Dry, and A Wolf at the Table. She thinks this might be his first novel.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Color of Magic

Uptown A Train in Manhattan, traveling on the F Line
Miriam, who is getting her masters degree in Bio-ethics, agreed with me that you've got to give Terry Pratchett his props. The Color of Magic, which Miriam was reading on the train, is the first of a series that spans 20 books. She says the books create a fantasy world. There are, in fact, wizards. She started reading much later in the series and is now returning to the first one.

The Secret Life of Bees

Uptown A Train in Manhattan
Alisha is a court reporter and was reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk. She hadn't progressed very far, page 14, but has hope because it was recommended to her by someone who has the same favorite book as she does, I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb. She reports that the novel is about a young white girl living in the South. Her mother died and she's being raised by her Black house keeper. Then she told me about www.bookcrossing.com. It's a website that encourages people to leave their books in places where others are likely to find them, effectively passing on good books to someone who might need a new book to read on the subway. I love this idea. When I was much younger, I didn't believe in collecting books, and I gave away every book I enjoyed, or throughout the bad books. I like to refer to my books now, as a teacher, so I hold on to them, but I still love to give away books to people who would enjoy them, and have people recommend books as well. Bookcrossing, according to the website, is itself a noun in the Oxford Concise English Dictionary that means "the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise." If only we had a little shelf built into the subway trains where we could exchange books.

I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

Manhattan-bound A Train in Brooklyn.
The book you see in the picture is I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Taking a picture with my phone in a moving train is tough, and I am sorry that I am not more of a photographer. Moses didn't want his picture taken with the book, and I don't blame him, in some respects. I am a guy he's never met before, accosting him on a subway train and asking him about his book. The book itself is well known to me; as I high school teacher, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings is a staple, or what Moses calls a classic. "It's a book about the American experience," Moses says. I asked him how. He said in the way we are still learning, as a country, to deal with race and gender, "regardless of how we see ourselves." It's not a "profound" book, he said, "because it's a reality."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Daughter of Fortune

Jay-Borough Hall, waiting for the F Train
There are certain trains where riders read. That seems to be always true on the F Train, especially between midtown Manhattan and Park Slope. I'll let you, gentle reader, find your own conclusions. So although I myself patiently waited for the A Train across the platform at Jay-Borough Hall, I guessed that by wandering over to the F side, I'd find a reader. Sure enough, Maria, a union organizer, read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende while waiting for the F, which came two minutes after I approached her. Contrary to my assumption, however, she says she usually doesn't read books on the train. She reads magazines. However she got Daughter of Fortune at train station--I'm assuming she meant Grand Central or Penn Station. She assumes that by doing so, "it is something that has to be mass marketed," and therefore an easy read. Readers? Is this novel an easy, train-ready, read? Sadly, before I asked if I could take a picture of her holding her book, Maria's train came.

Kick Up Your Heels; The Subtle Knife

The F Train at 7th Avenue in Brooklyn
Susannah, an artist, was reading two books when I spoke with her earlier this week. She was reading a non-fiction book, Kick Up Your Heels...Before You're Too Short to Wear Them: How to Live a Long, Healthy, Juicy Life, by Loretta LaRoche, which she described as a "humorous book" about middle age and mid-life. Quickly, however, she pulled another book out of her bag, about which she waxed with more enthusiasm, The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. "This is really good. The series is really good." The Subtle Knife comes second in a trilogy. She said that Pullman's series "is so hard to describe." In the world of the novels, "people's souls are animals." There is a church that is trying to separate the souls from the animals. Susannah then stopped and made a brilliant suggestion, the kind my high school students love: Go see the movie. The first book of the trilogy is The Golden Compass, which starred Nicole Kidman, came out last year.

The Ambassadors

R Train Somewhere in Manhattan
David is a director and is rereading The Ambassadors, by Henry James, for some ideas on a screenplay he is writing. "Usually," he says, as do many of the people I seem to catch on the subway, "I don't read on the train." My first reaction was to suggest that he try something else besides Henry James, but I try not to appear rude during interviews. And he has read novel, which revisits James' main focus--Old World Europe versus the New World U.S.--a number of times. SO he likes the book. Maybe, as David says, he just doesn't read on the subway.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Multi-State Work Book Vol. 1

4 Train headed uptown between Fulton Street and Union Square
Jason is studying for the bar on the subway. At this point in the process, the New York Law School graduate is studying property. He has three weeks left until the test. "I need a change of scenery," he says. "White noise. Starbucks." Good luck, Jason. Good luck.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

White Teeth

A Train Manhattan bound between Nostrand and High Street/Brooklyn Bridge
Kylie was reading White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, and I asked her why I knew no men who had raves for the novel and its writer, only women. She didn't know. As a matter of fact, the person who recommended the novel to her--which she had laying around for a year, as she tends to buy more books than she can read at once--was a man. He told Kylie that Smith's newest book, On Beauty, is the best book he's ever read. Just goes to show, probably, that I should get out more. White Teeth is set in England, for those who haven't read it (male and female). It involves two families, one that is half Jamaican and British, and the other Bengali. I have seen the word multi-culturalism connected with this novel. The book has a light tone, says Kylie, who works for a non-profit responsible for the Penny Harvest, which has school children collecting thousands of dollars in pennies. But while White Teeth's writing isn't heavy, she says, the subject matter most certainly is. Now, for full disclosure: I had never met Kylie, but my students raised over $70 for the Penny Harvest this year and won the school pizza party, which for 14 year olds is very significant.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

One Taste

Downtown 4 Train between 14th Street and Fulton Street
I thought One Taste would be a culinary book. I need to look at subtitles. One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality, by Ken Wilber. Wilber is one of the foremost philosophers in the United States, an author of 18 books, explains Travis, who performs the heroic job of tech support for an anti-spam company. He also manages a dojo. One Taste is a journal he wrote for a year, reflecting on his work. Integral Spirituality, Travis says--and I fear I will flub this up--is that "everyone is right. No one is smart enough to be wrong 100 percent of the time." Wilber, says Travis, who is on vacation with his wife from San Francisco, tries to find the commonalities in all believe systems. I wonder if the IRT is just that link.

Many Lives, Many Masters

Downtown 4 Train between 86th and 42nd
Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives, by Brian L. Weiss is a book that should be definitely judged by its cover, in that the full title, complete with subtitle tells it all. According to Susan, who works in communications in a financial institution, the book is about a psychotherapist who was forced to try using hypnosis to get in touch with a client's past lives when nothing else would work. This book, Susan tells us, is about that patient and those past lives.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Naked and The Subterraneans

Downtown 3 Train at Chambers Street
It was tempting to include Alison and Sarah in the same blog entry, as they were sitting next to each other, reading on the train, sisters on vacation from Maryland. So I did. Alison, a student at Smith off on summer vacation, was reading Naked, by David Sedaris. Now, I might be the last person in New York who hasn't read the memoir, and I had to ask her tell me what it's about, which she never got around to. "A friend gave it to me, and besides, it's my only book I brought [on her vacation]. It's about his childhood in North Carolina." Well, okay, I learned that. "I really like it. It's funny." Sarah, a student at Carleton College in Minnesota, was reading Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, another book that, at least in college, everyone around me had read but that I failed to read. "This is a story about a writer who has an affair with a Black woman." She said it asks the questions "Does love matter?" and "How am I going to make a living?" Fine questions not only for college, but for the 3 train, especially going downtown.

The Celestine Prophecy

6 train headed downtown at 86th Street
Jessica, a store manager, was coy about the book she was reading, The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. Or rather, she accused me of coyness. I asked her what the book was about and she said, "Oh, I think you know." I admitted that I knew it was a book about spirituality, but that was all I knew. She said it was a work of fiction, which I did not know, and that it was about a group of people searching for a manuscript. She had tried a couple times to read it and couldn't, but had heard it was a good book, so this time she is plowing ahead.

The Spiral Staircase

4 Train Uptown between 42nd Street and 59th Street
Yesterday, a young man--maybe mid-20s--sat across the train from me reading The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of the Darkness, by Karen Armstrong. He was the only one reading on the train besides me. He read with his head phones in his ears, presumably listening to music. There were four other people on the train who had headphones in, connected to MP3 players or what have you stationed in pockets. There is no judgment here. I am often one of the headphone people, preferring to zone out and not concentrate on text, or to block out the noise of other people's radios or conversations. There is also the rush-hour headphone wearing, when there isn't enough space to take out a book. People shove their way onto the car, bodies pinned against bodies. Listening to the iPod replaces the book as an activity, but perhaps more importantly, the space in your head where you listen to music is the only real space you can carve out for yourself; headphones are yet another place New Yorkers claim space when there is very little to be had. But back to our young man in his mid-20s, he worked the bonus train activity of listening to music and reading, something that is good for providing white noise enough to concentrate in an otherwise noisy train--an irony because there was relatively few late morning riders going uptown on the 4. His book, The Spiral Staircase, is a memoir. Armstrong is a noted writer on New Yorker's favorite subject for train reading--God--having written 21 books on a host of world religions. This book is about her own journey, which would seem to be relevant phrase. In 1969, Armstrong chose to leave the Catholic Church for a secular life. It is my self-imposed rule that I will not ask people to take out their headphones to talk to me about their books. There is some kind of fugue state I know I can get into with a good book and music without words--Debussy or perhaps Johnny Hodges. If there is a place where the words on the page truly make up the entire universe and there is nothing that interferes, the place is on an empty 4 train going up down with a set of headphones and a good book.