what new yorkers are reading on the subway

Thursday, July 3, 2008

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.

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