Chattering, reading and resisting sleep.

“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.)

5 thoughts on “Chattering, reading and resisting sleep.

  1. I came across a reference to P J O’Roarke yesterday and, knowing that I recognised the name, looked him up on Google and then on the website where he has his profile. He says very interesting things about technology and the way we use it, or that it uses us. I still don’t know where I would have heard of PJO’R. I presume he is a very big deal on your isde, but surely not so much here.

    I do sometimes wish, in the staffroom at school, that taking out your book to read in a lull in conversation was as socially acceptable as checking your phone. (Not that I have sat in that staffroom for most of a year now.) As soon as one phone comes out, everyone is checking. Imagine if we all took out our books, and maybe compared and inquired and shared. Isn’t it interesting what phones have done to us, or what we have done with them?


  2. Real paper books are still the only ones I read. I have an extra large bag so that I can carry a book everywhere with me. Also, poetry books in the car for reading emergencies:) I love your tale of interacting with a fellow reader in a giant airport. We really are all kin, those of us who read.


  3. I too LOVE seeing people read! A long time ago I wished that I had thought to photograph some of the many people reading and places in which they chose to read. Alas, we cannot get out and about now … nonetheless, I have enjoyed this sharing of our interests – I am seldom without a book at hand to dip into when I can. If I get ‘lost’ in a book, beware, for then all thoughts of domestic duties go out of the window!


  4. This is so true about those who one sees with a book, or kindle must now be added, in public places. I too want to know what they are reading as I will bend my neck to try to capture the titles. But then I have not traveled very far lately, definitely not in public transportation.
    ( This is not due to fear of “the virus”, but because I do not agree with the mandates).
    Yesterday, I had an appointment at a doctor’s office and as it is with so many offices now, one must wait in the car until they come out to get you…even when the temperature gauge measures 33 degrees….BRRR! I had a book I was reading and I was hardly aware of the person who came to get me as she was now standing in the cold.


  5. Oh, what a wonderful post. You and I are alike in that way. I always want to know what someone is reading and sometimes I have to try to not make a value judgment on the person based on the book, which is both uncharitable and probably inaccurate! (OK, if they’re reading the “National Enquirer, I think that judgment might be spot on!) And yes, the same with the spontaneous conversation, which, as you said, can move along a slow line better than almost anything!


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