Yesterday, I got on the 1 train to head uptown to my apartment and much to the relief of my tired feet, a seat was available. The 1 train is the principle mode of transportation to the Upper West Side, so the evening rush hour commute is a burdensome one, heavy with people traffic. As such, I have a fairly rigid practice when it comes to my evening trek home: I walk to the end of the subway platform so I can get into the back train car. This has nothing to do with where the exit at my stop is located. On the contrary, the exit at my train station is almost at the other end of the platform. This has everything to do with the fact that the back car, for whatever reason, has the least amount of people in it. The one directly in front of it could be wall-to-wall bodies, but the back car tends to be the lightest. So I wait for that car where I will have space for both me and my book.
I wasn’t much of a reader until I began riding the subway and even then, I had to force myself into the rhythm. More apt to play games on my phone, I made a conscious decision a few years ago to open a book instead. After about a week, once I found the groove of reading for the twenty minutes it takes to get to work and the twenty minutes back home, it became somewhat of a lifeline for me; Not only a lifeline for thinking and learning and considering and being challenged, but a lifeline for grounding my day. Before I get to the office, my brain hasn’t spent twenty minutes thinking ahead about what I have to do that day. Rather, it’s spent twenty minutes reading about the wondrous improbability of grace, or the memoirs of fascinating people, or the saga of someone who escaped from Scientology. Then, when I get off the train, my brain is awake and ready to take on the day. In contrast, reading on the way home clears out the matters of the day. I’m not thinking about my coworker who crunches his ice and smacks his gum. I’m thinking only about what’s on the page in front of me. That liberates and allows me to be fully present when I get home or to the theater or to dinner with friends.
Back to yesterday. I sat in my seat on the train, headphones in to signal I had no interest in being bothered, devouring page-after-page of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic.” I’d been tipped off by multiple friends who’d sung the praises of her book about living creatively – my best friend Rachael going so far as to claim “it should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves remotely creative,” – and after about page four, I agreed with her.
I felt a tap on my book and looked up. I live in New York and if someone makes a point to tap you on the train, it can mean any number of things, but the girl standing in front of me harmlessly said, “I’m about to start that book. My friends say it’s amazing.” I echoed her friends’ sentiments and told her, “It’s so good, I can’t put it down.” She was excited to hear that and got off at the next stop to get on with her, hopefully creatively-lived, life.
Today, there weren’t any seats available in the back car of the 1 train, so I stood while reading. I was nearing completion then because, as I said to the girl the day before, I couldn’t put it down. I even read some on my lunch break at work. Maybe I’m more than just a subway reader after all. As we approached the stop before mine, I finished a chapter and decided I didn’t want to start another one with only a couple minutes left on the train. Closing my book, I saw a girl with a shaved head reading two seats away from where I sat yesterday. She seemed giddy and enthralled by the words she read. And she was reading “Big Magic.”
Without hesitation, I tapped her book, held up my copy and said, “It’s amazing isn’t it?” Her eyes widened and she gasped a giant smiley gasp. “How funny,” she replied. “And yes. It’s so good, I can’t put it down.”
I smiled and got off the train at my stop, but on the inside, fireworks like a Chinese New Year festival in Beijing were exploding. How amazing, the connectedness of a shared literary moment in the back car of the 1 train between three strangers. It felt, if I could be so bold as to appropriate the author’s terminology, big and magical.
The magic of reading was something I knew at a young age. One of my earliest schoolroom memories occurred while sitting at my desk, reading a book I bought at the book fair.
I loved the annual book fair. For a week, the center area of the library transformed into a wagon circle of sorts – a traveling literary circus – each cart stuffed with the newest books on the market. Books about Babysitters clubs and Boxcars full of children mixed with hardbacks full of vivid illustrations and pop-up books about dinosaurs. It was the best possible way to expose a group of suburban kids to the vast possibilities of where books could take you.
Even more, we received brochures a few times a semester which advertised special books and gave us the opportunity to order them. It was Amazon before Amazon was Amazon. The paper it was printed on was as thin and flimsy as tissue but it held the most in-demand books for our age bracket. I wanted most of them.
My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Craiger, had a reading station in her classroom. It was essentially a mattress inside a wooden sandbox but it’d been cut and painted to look like a train. Sitting in the caboose by the window, just as I do now on the New York subway, I dove into story after story. She even let us take our shoes off when we were reading which, to a fifth grader, meant she was the coolest teacher at school.
One afternoon, I’d spent our classroom reading time devouring a small chapter book which was probably a Boxcar Children novel or a Goosebumps thriller. I hadn’t reached the end of the chapter when it came time to move on to a different subject so I figured I’d be sly and hold the book in my lap. So while Ms. Craiger talked about math, I continued to read. A few minutes later, I snapped out of my daze by hearing my name called repeatedly. Ms. Craiger looked at me and said, “Reading time ended, it’s time to pay attention.” I looked at her with feigned surprise and told her I wasn’t reading. She smirked and replied, “You’re holding the book in front of your face.” I’d become so immersed in the story that I’d brought the book almost to my nose. From there, it took decades for me to rediscover the love of reading.
It wasn’t that I didn’t read at all, I read what was required, but by high school I was more interested in movies and music. Then, as an English major in college, my homework assignments were to spend time with Shakespeare and the great writers. This was a welcomed shift but reading a new book every two or three days, I read more than I could ever retain. I also experienced extreme literary burnout. I turned my attention entirely to storytelling on TV. Moving to New York afforded me a hands-free commute and a reasonably matured desire to read what spoke to me, not what I was instructed to ingest. To us, the stubborn, doing something on our own volition is much more appealing than being told from an outside source we should do it. So I began reading what I liked in the back car of the 1 train.
For me, that was the key to unlocking the love of reading: the self-permission to read exactly what fed me. When I first began exploring the daunting option of finding a literary agent, a friend of mine referred me to someone high on the food chain at one of the internet’s most buzzy websites. He agreed to have coffee with me and over a latte and a croissant, he listened to my shaky pitch. I told him about my life, how I’d self-published a book of sort-of-essays when I turned 30 and how I wanted to focus more seriously on my craft.
He then spent fifteen minutes asking what books I was reading. I didn’t have much to tell him. The books I’d read at that point weren’t the books from the “Best Of” lists at the end of the year. They weren’t the trendy novels written by elevated thinkers or Pulitzer winners. The books I was reading were mostly memoirs; writers who wrote about their own lives. He then spent another ten minutes giving me a list of all of the books I should be reading/should’ve already read. What he was telling me to read (and visibly judging me for not having done so) was nothing like what I was interested in. I’m sorry, having rediscovered the love of reading, I was not then, nor am I now interested in reading what’s on someone’s “Must Read” list just because your trendy website says it’s the “in” thing to do. I want to read what I’m drawn to, what makes me curious about the world, and what spurs me to excavate my own life. Maybe that aligns with your list but maybe it doesn’t.
I left our meeting discouraged; believing his opinion of me was that I was unread, uncultured and un-serious about my work. I was none of those things, but I did learn over the next year of continued reading that the more I read, the more I wanted to write. The more I read, the more present I felt when I was with my family and friends. The more I read, the more focused my thinking became. I still didn’t read all the books he mentioned, I read what interested me, and that led me to books that challenged me, which eventually led me to “Big Magic.”
In Stephen King’s “On Writing,” he says if you’re not a good reader, you won’t ever be a good writer. He goes as far as to say if you don’t read, there’s no point in writing. As a now intermediate subway reader, I can attest that he’s right. Beyond that, I considered the people I enjoy listening to in interviews – Oprah, Diane Sawyer, Sarah Jessica Parker – and they’re are all rapacious readers. Their grounding in themselves and the world around them is rooted in the open perspectives of the writers they’ve invited into their lives. That invitation has shaped their livelihoods.
I set a reading goal for myself this year to invite 40 writers into my life. A couple friends asked me about my goal since I’d never set one for myself, much less proclaimed I had done so. One friend thought 40 books was completely doable; the other thought it sounded laborious and unachievable. It’s less about the number of books, although I can and will knock that goal out of the ballpark, and it’s more about the willingness to keep reading, keep learning, keep questioning, keep disagreeing and keep inviting newness into my life. Even if I only ever become a proficient subway reader, that’s something. For a collective 40 minutes a day, my mind is somewhere else and by being somewhere else, I’m finding myself more and more present.