An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

October 4, 2017 | 4 books mentioned 5 3 min read

It started with The New Yorker. A few years ago, I learned that I could get a discount to the magazine since I was a student, so I subscribed and began tucking each week’s issue into my backpack, underneath my MacBook and a makeup bag. It was a small but crucial pivot; from my third birthday to the end of my senior year, I was a notoriously voracious reader to the point where I’d get in trouble for reading during class. In college, however, things changed: I’d discovered Tumblr three years earlier, but became deeply embroiled in the burgeoning social justice movement that struck across all major social media platforms at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was constantly tweeting, constantly blogging, my attention consumed by the allure of instant opining. It all slowly eroded on my attention span until I looked back during my junior year of university and realized: I hadn’t finished a novel in two years.

The New Yorker was the beginning of my homecoming to regular reading. Despite studying English in college, I always thought I didn’t have time to read. Really read. See, I was a working student, scraping together financial aid to cover tuition and buying textbooks out-of-pocket. While my classmates balanced schoolwork with extracurriculars, I juggled low-paying, part-time work on top of it, waking up at 5 a.m. some mornings to work an early shift, then dragging myself to a Samuel Beckett seminar at noon, and sneaking a quick nap before a College Progressives meeting later that night.

I was poor; I’ve been poor my entire life. And in my social justice circles, I constantly heard the phrase “Poor people don’t have time to read.” But one day, while commuting, I put down my phone and picked out a New Yorker; I’d finished half the magazine by the time I reached work.

If you ride the bus regularly, you likely cut out an hour in your daily schedule for transportation. You must walk to the bus stop, wait for it to arrive, then endure the long route to your destination because others have places to go, too. You likely pull out your phone during these expeditions or, like many, stare out the window and think.

covercovercoverIt’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.

These days I consider myself anti-car, partly because I live in an urban area, but mostly due to the time lost with a car. It’s difficult to carve out an hour or two for reading when you’re working, studying, or both. Riding the bus provides me with the time to focus on a Bookforum while sipping my morning coffee. Public transit can be a gift—a frustrating, dirty one, but a gift nonetheless. Sometimes the delay in your commute can be a couple extra pages of a Roberto Bolaño novel.

Previously:Writing in Trains” by Emily St. John Mandel

Image Credit: LPW.

is a writer, journalist, and essayist based in Baltimore. She has been published in Mask Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Arts.BLACK, and Hyperallergic. She writes a monthly column for Full Stop Magazine.

5 comments:

  1. I envy those who can read on public transportation, as I get motion sickness when I try to read while moving. Enjoy!

  2. This is a truly uplifting essay. It is good and healthy to distance ourselves from social media, which can be intellectually and emotionally depleting, whereas reading can only fulfill us. I just wanted to add that gazing out the window while riding the bus or train can be meditative and a great way to start the work day or wind down.

  3. “but mostly due to the time lost with a car.” …the Bay Area’s (mostly) good public transport, stripped of L.A.’s stigma about riding it, has become my reading / study time. I love how this essay speaks to my experience plus: my proximity to other riders (human beings), the existential dynamic about riders getting on / off, the terminus / end point of some routes. For me, there’s pleasure, the basic wonderfulness about being able to look up from a book and see the bay bridge, water, or sky plus the sheer pleasure of traveling. Other routes can be an education, if you let it, a humbling exercise in bearing witness to social injustice, the risible consequences of redlining & systemic racism & inequity, the devastation of addiction.

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