A Week of Watching People Read in the Subway

by Ben Dolnick

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Books on the subway are increasingly like birds in the jungle: colorful, hard-to-spot, and of obsessive interest to the lonely and peculiar. Here are one week’s worth of sightings and speculations.

Monday, 5:20PM, Brooklyn-bound C train, 23rd Street:

Facts: Thin man with bushy black beard, in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing a tight shirt buttoned all the way to the throat, purple and yellow striped socks. In his lap are Cloud Atlas and The Stranger, both closed. They remain closed, almost defiantly, for twenty minutes. He’s not even looking at his phone; the empty space in front of his eyes is, apparently, preferable to reading these books.

Assumptions: He, George, is coming from the apartment of a friend on the Upper West Side, whom George, slowly, and then all at once, realized that he no longer likes. They met during their first year of an MFA program at Columbia and initially formed a bond over mocking the work of their classmates. (“OK, you’ve read Cormac McCarthy. We get it.”) George, who dropped out after the first year, has since come to regret these conversations. He recently noticed that his friend’s much-praised wit consists almost entirely of repeating things stolen from Twitter. This friend — who actually enjoys George very much — has loaned George a couple of books (“You haven’t read Cloud Atlas? Take it! Seriously!”), thinking this will guarantee at least one more encounter. It will not. The books will migrate from key table to a bedside table to under the bed to moving box to stoop.

Tuesday, 3:25PM, Manhattan-bound C train, Lafayette Ave.:

Facts: Teenage girl with dark curly hair and a purse in her lap reading Thornton Wilder’s Our Town very intently, as if she might find a hidden text behind the lines of the ordinary one. Her lips move slightly.

Assumptions: She, Sarah, is three days into her freshman year at Brooklyn Tech. She saw a flier on the message board outside the guidance counselor’s office, announcing that the fall play would be Our Town. In middle school she hardly spoke at all (once, when she was forced to give an answer in math class, a boy applauded and said he’d thought she was a mute). Now she is determined to try out — not just for any role, but for Emily. She doesn’t dare tell her parents, or her brother, or the eighth-grade English teacher she’s kept in touch with — she bought the book secretly, at the Strand, feeling as if the transaction were somehow shameful — but she is going to astonish them all. At home each night in front of her mirror she sits in her chair and delivers the graveyard speech. This is the third time she’s read the play from start to finish.

Wednesday, 4:15PM, Church Avenue-bound G train, Hoyt-Schermerhorn:

Facts: Thirty-something white man, talking to himself while holding a battered (and, for the moment, closed) Oxford World’s Classics edition of Middlemarch. A black backpack rests between his feet; he wears khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt, made of some athletic wicking material. He appears (hand-chopping motions, etc.) to be rehearsing a difficult conversation. When he resumes reading, his face assumes the grim expression of someone in the last seconds of a wall-sit.

Assumptions: He, Keith, is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his girlfriend broke up with him six months ago after finding porn in his browser history. (It was “not normal stuff, but like real sick stuff, totally degrading. Who even thinks about whether girls have pigtails or not?”) Soon afterward, she moved to New York to take a nannying job. One night, in grief and bewilderment, he Googled “how to understand women better” and he came upon Middlemarch, which he has been reading now for five months. He plans to to show up at the door of his girlfriend’s apartment, lay the battered thing down before her and tell her just how much he’s changed, then burst into tears. He has a week’s worth of clothes in his backpack, just in case this works.

Thursday, 6:30PM, Manhattan-bound C-train, High St.:

Facts: Teenage girl hugging the pole, reading I Never Promised You a Rose-Garden. She is wearing shorts and a black sweater, and is carrying a gray backpack. A carton of Zico coconut water is tucked under her arm.

Assumptions: Astra still needs to finish her summer reading (her English teacher at Friends Seminary has given everyone an extra week) but she’s been straight-up skimming for the past hundred pages. All she’s understood is that there’s something about a urethra and a hospital, but it’s fine; they only have to write two hundred and fifty words. She is an only child living in Brooklyn Heights. She is so jealous of her best friend’s Parisian summer romance that she hasn’t slept in a week, and she might actually give the Dorito-breathed guy in Honors Chem a chance. She’s on her way to buy a graphing calculator for Pre-Calc. Her father, who works at McKinsey, told her to go to J&R, forgetting that they’re closed. He and Astra are going to have a hell of a fight when she gets home.

Friday, 5:15PM, Manhattan-bound C train, Canal St.:

Facts: Fifty-something woman reading a Brooklyn library copy of Eric Jerome Dickey’s A Wanted Woman. She is professionally dressed: black and white tank top, black patent leather shoes, black rectangular glasses.

Assumptions: In 1997, Regina discovered, via mysterious hangups and unexplained receipts, that her then-husband was cheating on her with one of her best friends. She crawled into bed for six months and barely left; she lost twenty-five pounds and wasn’t even happy about it. At her lowest point — one afternoon she watched, without speaking or smiling, a four-hour Wheel of Fortune marathon — her actual best friend had come over with a copy of Eric Jerome Dickey’s Sister, Sister. Reading the book — she can still feel the pillows behind her, see her feet poking up under the blanket — was the first time in months that she went a moment without thinking about how miserable she felt. Since then, she has read every one of Dickey’s books within a week of its release, sometimes waking up before her alarm to finish the chapter she fell asleep reading the night before. She has never told her new husband why.

Ben Dolnick’s latest book, At the Bottom of Everything, is now in paperback. He hopes to see you reading it on the subway.

Photo by Lou Bueno