First, this is not a polemic celebrating the extreme sport of reading and walking at the same time (a sport known also by its adherents simply as “reading”). I am, of course, at least theoretically in favour of this dangerous and endearing activity, having once been one of its greatest long distance athletes. But I don’t do it anymore; it turns out I want to live long enough to read everything.
Nonetheless, I admire those who I still regularly see doing it (mostly children, but there is one adult I used to see every morning going down my street, a walking reader so committed to his vocation as to have installed a reading light on his coat, a light that shone like a beacon of warmth and solace; he was one of the people in my life, if I may extend my community towards someone who never looked at me, who looked truly happy).
Second, this is not an answer to Harold Bloom’s now classic (maybe? I actually know only one or two people who admit to having read it) How to Read and Why, a book I’ve never read, for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, if a person doesn’t like reading, I doubt that a book with such a dry, pedantic title would be the thing to break the spell and inspire them to begin. On the other hand, I feel a quiet but nonetheless profound resentment that anyone, anywhere would presume to tell me or anyone else either why they should abandon whatever they’ve been doing instead of reading and pick up a thing they feel no attraction to or affection for, or how I or they should do it!
Reading, to me, while something I have certainly bonded with others over and through, is an inherently personal activity, even when engaged in semi- or entirely publicly. To presume to horn in on someone’s reading life seems to me to deny that we each have a unique heart to our mystery (bless your verbal woes and wanderings, Hamlet) that is entirely unavailable to plucking, even by the most well-trained and erudite of professional readers.
No, this is not about walking into rush-hour traffic, Ulysses held aloft on a shaking arm; it is not a repudiation of an old-guard scholar’s attempt to counteract the powers of darkness inhering in television or texting (though there mayn’t have been texting so much when he wrote that book). This is about the literal and symbolic act of reading everywhere.
Reading in transit has been, since I became sufficiently independent to take myself anywhere I happened to be going, one of my greatest joys. I think I’ve always secretly preferred it to reading at home. Day-long outings which alternate delightfully between walking about, taking transit, and sitting to read in cozy or verdant or noisy or quiet new locations have been a staple of my adult life. In grad school, I spent a lot of time on trains between Toronto and Kingston reading, and these may have been the best parts of grad school. Something about reading while on a plane, but especially on a train of any sort, feels like I’m on the verge of leaving this world for a different one, the book in hand being not that new world but its mysterious portal.
I’m still in the literal here, I think. Reading on the way to or from pretty much anywhere at all is something I’ve come to appreciate particularly in Toronto, for the noise levels on public transit here generally reach the right pitch of frenzy to make total reading concentration possible for me. (Much like how I could only study grade 12 math while listening to U2’s Achtung Baby, reading now requires distraction to make both escape and arrival possible). But the TTC also, it so happens, has some of the most congenial seats for my bad back pretty much anywhere in the world.
My chairs at home are not comfortable enough for very prolonged reading sessions; further, they lack a changing view to surprise and delight me when I do happen to glance up from my book (except, sometimes, when my rabbit Sophie runs and does a little jump for joy before settling in to regard me adoringly). Libraries are great for browsing in, but trying to read in them has always and forever will threaten to put me in the hospital for their chairs seem, like the chairs in most coffee shops, designed to either expel one quickly or break one’s back outright.
There are many surprising and delightful things to see on public transit: recently, I looked up from my book at the woman sitting across from me just as she looked up from her book to look at me (both, of course, to check what the other was reading); we smiled knowingly at each other and went back to our books. Or, there was the man last year, I think, who interrupted my reading one day to ask me how many pages an hour I read; in scornful opposition to my estimate of 50-60, he claimed to be able to read 500 pages an hour, a declaration so reckless it made normally ice-cold Torontonians turn toward us in frank interest to watch me tell him just how completely over-stuffed, how very super-saturated, with bullshit he was. Or, to simply note how sad people look in their winter gear, or to witness beautiful and strong young people not yet afflicted by their own skin and bones doing chin-ups on the overhead rails, or people sleeping, or people fighting, or loving, or getting drunk, or giggling, or looking hard into themselves, or into places no one can possibly go with them.
So, yes, reading is personal and essentially private, I think. Yet, I do it best when surrounded by those who, for the most part, aren’t reading. At the same time that books are the gateway to the other world, whatever it is, if it is, I walk most confidently into it when surrounded by the comforting presence of others who feel both more real to me than I do to myself or than the characters do. Somehow, my almost complete mental absence while in the rude and ruddy presences of all kinds of actual people makes me more certain of their complexity, their mysterious hearts, and so somehow I feel more connected to them all; they glow like candles at the edge of my vision.
These ephemeral communities, formed and dissolved, through countless books and innumerable train or streetcar rides, are to me solid and beloved parts of my life. Where they become symbolic is in the larger stories they tell in our current political climate–of innumerable beautiful lives lived everywhere and all around.
The current and terrifying rise of tribalism, xenophobia, fascism in North America is, to me, among other things a failure of imagination, with imagination being one of the key ingredients in community-building and human interaction of any sort worth having. It is often very hard and painful work to make practical plans based on the acknowledgement that other people really exist but also, I think, the best part of being human.
Reading literally everywhere reminds me of this; for me, reading in public is not escape or avoidance. It is, rather, for someone like me (generally unable to talk to strangers or groups of people I know larger than 4 or 5), the best way to make ties with the broader world. Reading at home feels increasingly like some kind of cop-out. If getting on the subway and travelling east to west and back again is the only way I can maintain contact with my species at large then I must do it!
(The symbolic value of reading, for me, also reflects just how little literal travelling I am currently able to do. Overnight flights to Europe or even farther afield are out of the question for me for both structural reasons (my pelvis is basically being held together by medical baling wire right now), emotional reasons (all our beasties are suddenly elderly), financial reasons (as having the time to travel so often means not having the money to do so!), and political ones (for I won’t be going to the US for at least the next four years; I’m nursing a bellyful of regret for having never seen Hawaii or the Florida everglades or San Francisco).)
My international travelling will, for the next little while anyway, be done through books, lovely books. And so while I am as thoroughly against making New Year’s (or birthday, or summer, or whatever) resolutions, I do want to make make my reading more international generally. Reading English authors of a certain kind (Trollope, for a fine example) is certainly international from my colonial perspective, and covers topics so unrelated to my actual life they may as well be science fiction. But I want to go much further from home than that. (All this to say, I’m taking suggestions for books and authors not included among the usual suspects of superb international writing.)
It turns out it’s very difficult to move from the literal to the symbolic and not fall immediately over a cliff into trite stereotypes. I tried to pull up when I saw how this was all moving horribly towards a dewy-eyed proclamation, a breathless celebration, of hackneyed spiritual journeys (the kind inevitably described as “universally human.”) And yet, there’s this: I think I’ve pulled up too late and there’s nothing for it but to land at the bottom and see what, or where, that gets me. Maybe a little more earnest devotion to universal humanity that celebrates difference isn’t at all amiss these days… Maybe, in fact, that’s all I’m ever really seeing during my communal reading sessions.
All the loud spiritual ragamuffins moving all around me every day in my cold but gorgeously culturally diverse adopted city are the counterpoint to the sickness spreading out around us. They remind me I am also raw and rough-edged, and that’s fine–better than being angry, violent, hateful, slick, manipulative, or downright evil. The world is more terrifying now than it’s ever been in my experience. Let’s love the hell out of each other while and how we can; I’ll lend you my books if you lend me yours, wherever in the world we may be.