Forty degrees and rain, soggy train platforms, and an unhappy toddler–my daughter, not happy at being dropped off at daycare–can make for a miserable start to a day. It was only partially redeemed by finally finding dry shelter in the shape of a subway car for the ride into Manhattan. After my wife had disembarked at her station in downtown Brooklyn, I rode on by myself, finding companionship, as usual, in a book.
As I read about general relativity, inertial frames, non-Euclidean geometry, the instrumental nature of science, and so on, I looked around me: my subway car was full of daily commuters, reading, listening to music on headphones, some even engaged in quiet conversation. We were traveling over the Manhattan Bridge, and I could see the city’s massive skyline rising up out of the mist, visible through the raindrop-streaked window panes of the train.
At that moment, I was confined and crowded; passengers pressed up around me, hands jostled for hold space on various bars, and newspapers and books had been artfully held or folded to take up minimum space (and avoid the angry glare). I was hemmed in, boxed in.
But when I turned my eyes back to the pages that had been commanding my attention, I felt no such restriction. I was reading a masterful exposition of a fundamental physical theory; I was immersed in abstractions, in foundational questionings of concepts whose meanings are all too glibly assumed. I was transported, away from my immediate surroundings, lost in reveries.
This sounds a great deal like some schoolboy reporting on his first experience with an adventure book borrowed from the local library: “I was traveling distant lands, meeting strangers, doing amazing things, all while at home! Can you dig it?” (OK, that last part is an embellishment, but you catch my drift.)
This similarity shouldn’t be surprising at all. Reading is an intellectually respectable form of escapism and day-dreaming; why wouldn’t we seek, and be entertained by, those same pleasures that so enthralled us as children? To be sure, the form and content of our fantasies and speculations are markedly different from the times we read about adolescents solving mysteries in their hometown, but the primal need to be elsewhere, and the susceptibility to such diversions hasn’t gone away.
I’ve written before about reading on the New York City subway; my experience this morning was a reminder of one of my favorite reading rooms and its distinctive setting. In the subway, I travel to familiar places, surrounded by the familiar: well-traveled streets and bridges pass me by and around me, students go to school, workers go to work, lovers snuggle up, and readers read. But while I’m surrounded by the seemingly quotidian I also find myself absorbed in the distant, the abstract, the esoteric. Sometimes, like this morning, I look up from the pages, experience a slight start, and even smile a little: if only the folks around me just knew where I’d been, what I’d been up to.