“I liked thinking about people reading books in the Paris metro, since they are underground, in the earth’s dark shadow, in the artificial light of electric bulbs, with the mute, graffiti-covered walls of corridors and tunnels rushing by their windows….”
“Above us, in the airplanes, someone is also reading a book — most often one with shiny covers, devoid of mystery, constructed on simple premises and the sincere desire for abundant royalties, but it may also be that someone up in those expanses is studying a Sufi epic or Dante and will experience illumination.
“And if this reader looks out the little window, he or she will see not black walls, as in the metro’s labyrinths, but the white gleam of clouds, a splendid, perpetually sunlit landscape, and below the threads of rivers quivering like children’s thermometers, strips of highways streaked by cars, like nervous insects, the yellow strips of sand along the sea, the dark smears of forests, sometimes snow-topped mountains, profoundly motionless, self-absorbed, autistic, and also cities chattering in different languages, resisting sleep, glowing even at midnight with feverish neon lights. Above the earth and below the earth, in metro cars and airplanes, someone is always reading books.”
-Adam Zagajewski, in Slight Exaggeration, © 2011
Nowadays most people I see on public transit or airplanes, if they are not chatting with their seatmate or sleeping, are looking at their phones or laptops. You can’t tell if they are reading an e-book or playing a game, or just working.
(I know, I know, it’s the era of masks and distancing, but please humor me. It may be temporarily necessary to do without some beloved activities, but I can still remember, and muse.)
Whenever I see anyone with an actual print book, I find it hard not to stare, to strain my neck and eyes in an effort to see just what author he is interacting with, revealing this private activity so publicly. It’s not voyeurism that motivates me, but a feeling of kinship with other readers, in an era when our numbers are diminishing. Of course, the statistics on reading trends show that a huge number of people continue to read, and I notice a few of them at the library. What’s different about the readers the plane is that I might watch them over the course of an hours-long journey; they are specific examples, and encouraging in a way that statistics can never be.
Zagajewski’s musings made me think about how we readers sometimes look outwardly like the “profoundly motionless, self-absorbed” mountain, when inside we are actually engaged in intense conversation that makes us more like the cities that “resist sleep.” I have a lot of experience with that lately, without going anywhere!
On my solo travels, twice that I remember clearly I was able to talk to perfect strangers about our reading, and I think in both cases the other person spoke to me first. The last time this happened I was looking at my Kindle Paperwhite while in line at Mumbai’s airport security, when a well dressed man next to me interrupted to ask what I was reading. Always honest in the instant, as soon as I answered I felt embarrassed and wished that I had thought to name some other, less boring recent read.
But his question was just an icebreaker, so he could find out why I was in India; talking with him, I forgot to notice how slowly the line was moving. I wonder if I will get the chance again to practice his kind of boldness and make the acquaintance of commuting or traveling readers. I would like to convey somehow my happiness to meet on my journey another lover of the printed word, who might just then be on her way to experiencing illumination.
(All photos found online.)