It’s happened again, although in less interesting fashion: not all that far into Sjón’s The Blue Fox, I was confronted with the leavings of a previous reader. My predecessor apparently forgot about or had no interest in the promotional offer that ceased to be of value almost three years ago, choosing to use this key to what I surmise would have been some natural nosh as a bookmark instead, or maybe even sticking this little coupon between the pages, not having had any other place to put it at the moment of receiving it, and almost immediately erasing the knowledge thereafter that it had ever come into her/his possession.
It did give me brief pause to wonder who the one-time holder of this card had been, and why s/he donated this excellent book. (Was it deemed not good enough to keep? Was this just standard practice, after having finished a volume?) But there really was no air of mystery about this bright-hued promo, or none worthy enough, at least, to be cast alongside the tale’s characters, or its really spectacular ending.
The Blue Fox was one of two books I finished on lengthy train rides this weekend– the final of which provided me with a chunk of time large enough to also get a solid way through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I plucked off the bargain shelf of a suburban St. Louis used bookstore before my return journey home. It proved to be magnificent train reading, feeling as it does somewhat like Sebald lite. That lo-cal adjective isn’t in any way meant to disparage the project; de Waal’s exploration of family treasure is, so far, beautifully engaging– but its poetic history is less overtly haunted by spirits that may or may not still be hanging around the author’s own life. Hence the “lite,” as in, less burdened* by the demands of continuing pasts, even as it searches about in days gone by to explain what the author holds in his hands in the present.
Well. I’m now back in the super-short train trips that make up my daily commute, and so there’s no romance of long-distance rail travel to enhance de Waal’s family history. There’s a possibility, though, that a trace of a past reader somewhere in the pages could still pop up, if I’m lucky.
* This term, too, is not employed in any negative way; Sebald’s tendency to carry the weight of simultaneous pasts and presents in his writing constitutes one of the most beautiful and deeply satisfying writing styles I know.
Well, friends, no one was reading in my carriage on the way home today; any ability to concentrate on anything at all was shot completely to hell by two meatheads shouting threats and insults at each other. The scene came complete with stereotypical bad-cinema moves such as one oaf turning to his presumed audience (i.e., the rest of the car) and making his case to us, then standing up and removing his outerwear and looming in simian fashion over his seated foe, while the latter challenged his aggressor to go ahead and make good on his promises– an outcome which, of course, never happened, and which consequently meant the rest of us were trapped listening to this inane exchange until they both got off and actually started chest-bumping and pushing each other along the platform as we were finally able to leave them behind.
It was the second day in a row that I had to be vigilant about the people around me; a completely different sort of mentally disturbed individual paced up and down my car last night, muttering to herself and getting every now and then in the face of some poor passenger she decided she didn’t like. In that instance, at least pretending to be engrossed in my magazine seemed like a good protective move, and as long as this lost soul was on the other side of the carriage, I could actually get in a paragraph or two.
My increased train-riding over the past year has made especially evident some alternate uses of reading. In this last instance, it proved to be a sort of defensive shield. Less justifiable– and (hence?) more shameful– are those times when I just don’t want to deal with one more panhandler. Although everyone involved can probably see through the ruse, being visibly sunk into a book makes it seem (we all tell ourselves) as if you’re so in the zone that you just didn’t notice the person begging for change or making a public plea for assistance in the aisle. My own worst bout of comeuppance concerning this tactic came about a year ago; although I really had been fixated on a novel, I was well aware of the guy who’d just gotten up and said, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.” In spite of my own wishes that I weren’t so jaded, that I could believe that each person’s pleas were honest and legitimate and valuable, and that I could– and more importantly, were willing to– give something to every needy person who crossed my path every day– in spite of all that rolling guiltily around inside me, I didn’t look up, and tried to focus on the doings of fictional characters as well as possible, while the story of the living person in front of me continued to be told. And when we arrived at my station and I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the man who had reached a point where he saw no choice but to publicly set his own dignity aside– and who, I finally allowed myself to see, was asking for money in order to bandage the largest, most horror-film-esque gaping and suppurating wounds I’ve ever witnessed on a living being.
I still haven’t been able to rid myself of the painful awareness of what some Southern religionists I know would call being convicted of one’s own sin– or the regressive spiral of guilt that continues to accuse my inhumanity vis-à-vis everyone in need (whether a so-called “worthy victim” or not) to whom I haven’t given what I’ve got when asked for it. Every now and then, it makes taking up a bound volume of print feel like the bad sort of privilege– an easy method of dismissing harsh realities from which most people on this planet simply can’t walk away. Handing a homeless person a book is so far from making any meaningful difference in a horrifying structural situation, such a gesture is more or less an insult. But I really do wish those two lunks on the train today had been more able and willing to tune out the world– or at least each other– with some sort of reading material of their choice. In following the adventures and travails of some disembodied character, they might have felt less need to act out flawed attempts at heroism for themselves.
It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.
Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.
Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.
I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.
* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.
Something was odd this afternoon on the line I rarely take, an express that just isn’t situated right, route-wise, for me to bother with, even though it hits my stop. But schedules had gone screwy, as they sometimes do, and so I hopped on the rush-hours-only train after work. Unbelievably, I had my pick of seats, sharing the carriage for a while with all of maybe seven other people and a conductor who gave a live heads-up of station names, instead of letting the standard pre-recorded announcements chug along in their salesmanlike cheer. The lack of a crowd combined with the presence of a live human voice to form something like an atmosphere of calm beauty in the old car, and for a time, I was left feeling more relaxed about the world than has been the case in a very long time.
The sense began to erode, though, as I noticed that I was the only person in the compartment not entranced by a smartphone in hand. The realization came right after looking up from an article I was reading in The New Yorker, whose paragraph ended by describing actress Geraldine Page’s “illustrating the psychic disturbances and the hidden joys of being human, of feeling strange in a strange land.”* Admittedly, there wasn’t much drama going on in that car, and it’s not as if that final phrase was original enough to jolt me into a revelatory space– but I began to move from feeling a subtle joy in a peaceful moment on a public vehicle to being reminded that I can’t seem to get down in some fundamental ways with the time I’ve been destined to inhabit. Although being surrounded by mobile-captivated zombies has become so habitual I hardly notice it half the time, I’m still brought up short every now and then by what feels like walking among a population that operates according to cultural rules that are in some essential, unchangeable fashion foreign to the basic assumptions that guide my life.
But that semi-regularly recurring reminder is also not necessarily a disheartening, nor even a lonely one; rather, it’s urging me, as it usually does, to go back to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, and to find solace in the eras- and generations-spanning fellowship of thinkers and actors who’ve never really been able to inhabit any place or time comfortably, because it’s just not in their nature to accept the way things or people are; because for them, the “is” will never be good or worthy enough as long as there’s an “ought” being ignored or suppressed. I’m guessing that a good many of my contemporary compatriots are getting 1) at least a glimpse right now of what it might feel like to be, or be thought of as, strangers in their own, newly strange, land; and 2) of just how many “oughts” are pending out there, awaiting our responses. Maybe it’ll mean more people will start to look up and around, and at the very least, to think a bit more about who and how they are among others, and the duties and expectations that come with such a knowledge. It’s a fragile hope, and only a meager beginning, but a hope all the same.
Hilton Als, “Paging Geraldine,” in The New Yorker, 13 & 20 February 2017, 23.
Down the aisle from me sat a woman with a pronounced Elizabethan hairline, high, high forehead and plucked and penciled eyebrows bent toward the hardback book in her lap, and the audible world blocked out with the unsurprising presence of earbuds. I never discovered what it was she was reading; only that its cover featured bright yellows and reds and oranges, a fitting complement to the late-afternoon sun coming in through the carriage windows, and doing so in an unusually clear and determined fashion for this time of year.
Well-matched, though, as her text was with the weather, the passenger was apparently conflicted between loyalty to or interest in the narrative on paper and the one being created with her own two thumbs and the screen of her phone, which rested against the pages when she wasn’t toying with it.
Much like the title of her tome, I’ll never find out whether she chose one medium or the other, or whether she continued her jumpy oscillation between the two; as if sensing my thoughts, just before I got off at my stop, the woman glanced my way with what seemed to be an optic warning to back off.
Now that winter’s here, the train’s interior soundscape has taken on a new dimension, with the distinctly plastic swish of pieces of hi-tech outerwear brushing against each other as their wearers enter and leave the carriage. And that added bulk and the huddled postures that shape it have also increased the obstacles blocking my line of reader-spying vision. But they’re there, those faithful fans of ink and paper; one on the way home, appropriately enough, was reading The Girl on the Train.
The other, I’ll admit, was testing my patience with his apparent inability to understand both how his body occupied space, and the fact that others around him also took up a certain amount of physical area close to or overlapping his own, and that compromise in the placement of everyone’s physique was the only acceptable mark of civilized behavior. But I’ll admit that my irritation at having his quilted-jacket-bound left arm shoved into my side was very slightly lessened due to the fact that said arm was helping to support a fat open book in front of his face. I’m willing, though not really likely, to believe that he was so engrossed in what seemed to be fiction that he didn’t even realize there was an entire mass of people surrounding him, close enough to stir his hair with their breath or swap a body-hopping germ or two.
But the week that seemed it would never end, at least not with my sanity intact, is over, and with promised snowstorms on the way, I can think of no better way to spend the days ahead than mercifully free from the sardine-packing of rush hour, under the covers with a good book or three– at least if I don’t sleep the entire weekend away. Either way, sanity: you can come back home now; the coast looks clear for at least the next forty-eight hours.
After the one guy with an unidentified hardback propped against his knees got swallowed up in the flood of rain-fleeing humanity entering the train this morning, I noticed something curious: an unusual number of people with old-fashioned reading material in their bags or purses– cheap paperbacks crushed in between laptops and absurdly tiny umbrellas, more cared-for volumes and long-read magazines neatly filed in multi-compartment attachés. The carriage was crowded; I had to hold my own book uncomfortably close to my face to read it. But in addition to wondering why so many people’s bags were gaping open, I also wanted to ask all these book-stashers, “If not now, when?” Maybe they were all lunch-break readers, or were only carrying around an extra paper-bearing pound or two as a last resort against boredom.
For a cause I’m unable to identify, that peek into so many people’s toted-along interior lives made me sad; for some unknown reason, the scene constituted something less than an active network of signals from one book lover to another that a compatriot was in his or her presence– something not quite on par with the literary version of a secret handshake. Maybe having possible dystopian scenarios much more in my mind of late, I’m also seeing closed, carried-not-read books as little flashes of samizdat-to-come. I can only hope if that situation does arise– if the groundswell we’ve seen of late of outrage at and purposeful self-quarantine from unfamiliar ideas and people does turn into active persecution of, say, those who openly welcome dialogue with and education about things and groups deemed officially unacceptable– that a solid network of resistance will also emerge. It could simply be because I’ve always loved books and the possibilities they offer that I also believe in their power to take us beyond, and connect us in order to overpower, countless forms of ugliness, and to teach us how to stand firm in the face of difficult and frightening situations. But my mind could also be swerving off into possibly overblown fearscapes at the sight of bagged books because frightening regimes’ first targets are so often words and the people who love the truths they contain.*
So when I urge people to read, usually, I’m really just expressing a hope that they’ll find a new source of enjoyment and meaning in their lives. I know that books won’t solve even half the problems on this planet, even if we read the good ones with open hearts. But whether histrionic or not, that faith in the written word also houses the kernel of a plea that extends beyond the strength and imagination the best of our literature can offer and encourage: take what you learn, and respect your teachers, yourself, and the strangers you’ve never even seen, enough to uphold those lessons in your actions. Don’t give in, and don’t hide the books.
* In the last few years, J.K. Rowling has provided incredible models both of courage vis-à-vis tyranny, and of how that tyranny works. Want to see some of the best delineation since Václav Havel of how ideology functions? Check out volume five in her Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, with Dolores Umbridge schooling us all in evil’s comfortable relationship with treacly cuteness. And for a reminder we all need to hear, there’s also The Goblet of Fire, with Dumbledore’s admonition that a time will likely “come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy” (differently phrased, I think, in the movie version). (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, New York: Scholastic Press, 2000: 724.)