Like most writers, I have a day job (a new one that I’m quite enjoying–see previous post). And while I do sometimes work remotely, many days I shuttle back and forth to the office via public transportation. I live two blocks from a Metro stop, which means I spend a lot of time on DC’s ever-less-reliable but still much-cherished (by me, anyway) subway system. Half an hour to the office, half an hour home, if the trains run more or less on time–a dubious proposition at a time when America’s transit systems, like the rest of the country’s infrastructure, aren’t getting the love and money they deserve.
Some days the commute wears on a little longer than I’d like, with trains holding “momentarily” (Metro operators’ favorite word) in tunnels or at platforms. When that happens, I remind myself to be grateful that I brought a book (see pic) and that I am not stuck behind the wheel on one of the area’s supercongested highways. DC has the worst traffic in the country, or so I hear; I stay off the roads as much as I can, especially now that I am the owner of one of those pollution-spewing diesel VWs you’ve probably read about.
You can do a lot of things to pass the time on the Metro. You can study other people’s shoes. You can nap. You can be a “mindful commuter” and meditate. You can silently or not-so-silently rage against having to spend time trapped inside a large metal tube with a lot of other people. You can, as so many of us do, kill time on the smartphone, head at an awkward 45-degree angle while you gaze into the siren device in your hand. (Will “text neck” become the defining health problem of the early 21st century?)
Or, as more of my fellow Metro riders seem to be remembering these days, you can read a book (and I don’t mean read it on your phone, although if you choose to read on a screen I don’t think less of you). There are fewer Kindles these days (but more Kindle apps in play, I’m sure). But I’ve noticed more people getting lost in print books on the Metro the last few weeks. I’ve seen copies of The Martian and a volume of Shakespeare (“Antony & Cleopatra”) and some hefty-looking nonfiction and, frustratingly, a number of books I couldn’t get close enough to identify–but most definitely books. Codices. Ink on paper.
People read. Of course they do. I do, you do. On screens, off screens. What feels subversive to me about this resurgence of print books on the Metro–if I’m right that there’s been a resurgence–is that it thrusts the physical fact of the book back into the public eye. Unless you can see the screen of someone else’s smartphone, you often don’t know what that person is really doing. S/he could be reading–or listening to music, or playing Words With Friends, or taking BuzzFeed quizzes. For all that it hinges on social media and constant connection, the digital world can be a terribly private one, especially when it rubs up against the elbow-to-elbow space of a Metro commute.
A print book doesn’t hide itself. It forces its owner to announce to the world I’M READING. It calls attention to the act. It makes reading public again even as the experience remains a very private one. And I like that. I like how books announce themselves, quietly, just by appearing in a space in which so many other activities take place and that people inhabit only briefly. I don’t need any more “Surprise! Print isn’t dead” articles to tell me that books are on the go.