Screens on the Subway: The Rolling Library Is Going Digital

April 28, 2014 | 4 3 min read

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At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen.

In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces.

To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan.

A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones.

None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space.

When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive?

Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. I am 22 and study at NYU now. Sometimes on the subway I opt to read an ebook on my iPhone, and sometimes I pull a printed book out of my bag to read. I have also noticed I am one of the few reading books, while most people seem to be playing games or listening to music.

  2. I love riding BART to work and checking out other people’s reading. Maybe it’s because going under the bay makes the network spotty, but I see about equal numbers of screens and books/papers/mags. But I am sure it will all slowly switch.

  3. I think that the author is being a tad hyperbolic, and I don’t understand what this post is arguing. As a longtime New Yorker, I don’t recall the subway being a “rolling library” in 2004, and subway readership rates are not harbingers of the end of literature.

    I think it’s quite a romanticized view of the subway to claim that in 2004, the subway was some sort of egalitarian literary salon, where high-minded academics and plebeians gathered to read their books and newspapers. This is evidenced by the highly questionable and obnoxious claim that those residing closer to Manhattan were more likely to be reading the Times or the Journal. How one could possibly determine another commuter’s residence based on their choice of newspaper is beyond me? In fact, I’d imagine that a fair amount of the people on subways that are reading any newspaper at all are from outside Manhattan. NYC’s daytime population nearly doubles due to commuters, and bridge and tunnel commuters are probably more likely to have the time to read newspapers, particularly longer newspapers like the NYTimes and the Journal.

    With respect to the impact of smartphones or tablets on reading in the subway, I’m not convinced that the devices alone have had any impact on readership, and I certainly wouldn’t believe so without firm evidence. Even if people do read less now on the subway, I’d point to the pernicious effect that these devices have had on people’s worklife balance. People are now expected to answer emails and deal with work issues throughout the day. This is a particularly pressing issue in the morning as people are commuting to work and checking morning email and calendars. I also don’t see how anyone could attempt to comment on this issue at all without considering the increasing workday of the American worker. Taken together, these factors alone could help explain why people on the subway may opt for less engaged diversions than reading. That doesn’t necessarily mean people are not reading or that literature is ending or that we need to wait for some sort of rebirth a la 1970’s cinema. It may just mean that the overworked, constantly connected, American worker just wants to relax and listen to some music or play candy crush.

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