Why you should care

Because, sadly, strangers on the bus never ask what you’re e-reading. Or maybe that makes you glad.

Julie Vick’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. She is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver.

When I first moved to New York several years ago, I was reading an Edith Wharton novel on the subway. I can’t remember the name of the book because I found it boring, but I have been afflicted with the need to complete any book I start no matter how painful I find it, so I was trudging through. A man approached me and said, “I love Edith Wharton novels.” I gave him a halfhearted smile and then said, “Well, this is my stop” and got off.

I didn’t think much of the incident since it seemed to just be a pickup. Perhaps the guy did have a sincere appreciation for the book, but if that were the case, we weren’t a good match.

I was reading that day partially because it felt like a good use of time. I have a surplus of books on my to-read list, which includes a fair number of the classics I’ve never read. But I was also using the Wharton book as literary armor: If the stranger sitting next to me in a public place looked like they were fishing for a conversation, I would pull out a book.

The book didn’t have the intended effect that day on the train, but that turned out to be the first of many times a stranger talked to me about my reading materials on the subway. Sometimes it was just a note of approval — when I stood clinging to a pole and reading The Corrections, a woman came up to tell me she was reading it too and really enjoying it.

While I was reading Everything Is Illuminated, the woman next to me started reading some of it over my shoulder. Just as I was pondering how to politely tell her to get her own book, she asked me if she could write the title down; so I showed her the cover.

Surprisingly, most of these encounters didn’t seem to just be excuses to talk. I’ve been stuck next to people on public transportation or airplanes who use my reading material to strike up conversations. Such people’s goal seems to be to get you to stop reading and start talking, perhaps because they forgot their own books. But my subway discussions were typically brief and focused on the book.

When I moved to New York, I was in a city full of people who embraced the “leave me alone” philosophy, and that worked well for me. Keeping to yourself when you’re crammed into a large city is partially a necessity — it’s a way to cope with people around you all the time. You pretend you aren’t sitting on the 30th floor of a building filled with people and you pretend there aren’t strangers sitting inches away from you at dinner. I found this to almost always be the case — except when I was reading. And I didn’t really mind the impromptu book club I was having with other commuters. I had discovered what researchers have also found: that small talk with strangers can make people happier.

Literary dialogue has transformed into a sloppy spaghetti of Facebook comments and Twitter feeds in which you do connect with others, only in the most surface of ways.

 

The most interesting incident occurred when I was in the middle of Bright Lights, Big City. An older man dressed in a suit tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s the first book cover I ever designed. I haven’t thought about it in a long time. It’s good to see it again,” and when the train pulled into the next station, he got off. I looked down at the cover to inspect the art more closely. It featured a man walking by a neon-lit sign. The colors and graphics had an ’80s purple haze to them and the Twin Towers still appeared in the skyline in the background.

When I left New York for Denver, my conversations continued: On city buses I talked with a man carrying a briefcase about the issue of Wired I was reading, and I showed a young woman the cover of an Anne Lamott book so she could jot the title down.

Now I do most of my reading electronically, and I’ve never had a stranger ask what I was reading on my e-reader or phone. Literary dialogue has transformed into a sloppy spaghetti of Facebook comments and Twitter feeds in which you do connect with others, only in the most surface of ways.

The last time I talked with a stranger about my reading was in a Denver coffee shop a couple of years ago. As I sat grading a stack of papers, a young man waiting for his order asked me how my students were faring. “Not too bad,” I told him.

“I always wanted to teach writing,” he said before he picked up his coffee and left. Soon after, I started grading all my papers online.

I’m not really one to wax poetic about the disappearance of printed books — I don’t love the way they smell or feel. Moving toward e-books has mostly spelled convenience for me — it’s easier to bring a stack of books on a trip and my bookshelf only has to be big enough to hold the few physical books I love. But now when I grab lunch and open the Kindle app on my phone, I dive into a maze of words in which the only threats of interruption are electronic.

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