Readin’ and Ridin’: The Subway Car as Reading Room

Like many New Yorkers, I do a lot of reading on the subway, standing or sitting. (It is a depressing fact, of course, that too many of us now seem fixated by smartphones, playing video games, or texting endlessly.) Sometimes I walk into  a car with a book already open, sometimes I seat myself, open up my backpack and settle in to continue the read. And sometimes I have to stand and read. Whatever option may present itself, I read whenever I ride. (Unless I have company, in which case, of course, I do my best to engage in conversation with my companion(s).) I don’t necessarily do this to be anti-social; it’s just that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have something to read. (In desperate times, when finding myself riding a train without reading material,  I have even descended to reading The New York Post; yes, that is how out of sorts I can feel with nothing to read at hand.)

My reading on the subway these days is limited, of course, because I do not commute to work by subway. I walk to work, so my riding the subway tends to be limited to short rides to my gym, and the usual traveling around the city to meet friends or partake of its other pleasures. In days gone by, when epic commutes took me to work, I read more, and moved through my bookshelves’ store of unread material a little more expeditiously. In 1995, I commuted from Little Italy to the Bronx for work, riding the D train from Lafayette-Broadway to Fordham Road; in 1999, I traveled to Queens College to teach my morning classes, catching the F train from 2nd Avenue and taking it out to Kew Gardens before transferring to a bus; in 2002, I rode the 2 train from 125th Street in Harlem to Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College–the end of the line. In each case, I was fortunate enough to not be stuck standing for too long, if ever, and enjoyed uninterrupted access to whichever book I happened to be reading at the time.

It has been said that New Yorkers read on the subway so that they don’t have to make eye contact, so that they can remain ensconced in their private reveries, untouched by those around them. I think there is something to that theory, but I think part of the reason is that our hectic lives leave little time for the leisurely read, and the subway commute can provide a moment or two of unhurried reflection. This is not to suggest that the subway car is a perfect reading lounge: too many people talk too loudly on their cellphones (in trains riding above ground) and sometimes to their friends or families; kids will be kids; headphone volumes are often set at eleven; rush-hour cars can be impossibly crowded and will not permit the standing read; panhandlers and buskers can raise a din. But in general, a not-too-crowded, not-too-frigid subway car and an entertaining read still remain one of the city’s enduring pleasures.

13 thoughts on “Readin’ and Ridin’: The Subway Car as Reading Room

  1. Reminds me of a short essay I read in the front of Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’ written by his wife, describing the many places he created to write in, one of them was a writing desk in the back seat of his car, I’d heard of reading and travelling, but Steinbeck introduced me to writing on the road, though clearly he wasn’t multi-tasking.

    1. Claire,

      Thanks for the comment. I hadn’t heard of that essay; I’ll have to check it out. I’ve heard of many intriguing writing-nests but this is definitely a new twist on an old theme!


      1. I don’t think it was very successful in terms of getting much writing done, but original I thought and love the idea of getting away from it all. Having found a beautiful spot in nature though, no doubt one would want to be fully in that place and not sitting in the back of the car 🙂

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