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How to Read a Large Book on Crowded Public Transit

At some point in your life you may find yourself waiting for some mode of public transit to arrive. When the aforementioned public conveyance finally comes you may feel a pang of minor panic as you see just how full this subway car or bus is already. This panic, alas, will only grow in severity as you remind yourself that you are running late, and thus waiting for “the next one” is not an option. Unfortunately, this panic will only increase in severity, yet again (alas! alas!) as you glance about you and see many other people, all around you, who appear equally committed to squeezing themselves onto (or into) the limited space available. Nevertheless you manage, somehow, to secure yourself a space in the crowded confines of the vehicle, but as the doors close behind you (to a chorus of groans from those who could not get on) another disconcerting feeling arises as you look down at the item clutched in your hand and realize that the book you have brought to read is much too large to read on so packed a mode of public conveyance.

What are you to do?

1. First, and most importantly, one must clearly decide: I am going to read this large unwieldy book. If one enters a crowded subway car or bus and is even the least bit uncertain on this matter they are likely to simply keep their book closed until such a time as many of the riders have disembarked. To read a large book in a tight space is not without difficulty; however, if one is committed to reading – wholly and truly committed – than such feat can be easily accomplished. Simply take out the book hold it relatively close to your face and begin reading – this works best if you can stand in such a way so as to be facing another person’s back, this way you lower the risk of accidentally hitting them in the face with the book should the mode of public conveyance come to an abrupt halt. Granted, in a truly crowded car it may be quite difficult to even hold the book in front of your face, but even in a car as crowded as that one need not give up on reading. Instead, hold the book above your head, and read it by looking up. Even in the most crowded forms of public transport it is wholly unusual (though not unheard of) for people to fling themselves on top of (as in above) other riders. Thus the air above your head should provide you with ample space to hold the book. It is true that standing in such a way may make your arms sore, and your neck ache – but such bodily pangs are nothing for one who has clearly decided: I am going to read this large unwieldy book. And as has already been established, the only way to succeed in this endeavor is to be committed to it.

2. Wait! It seems we have put the crowded passenger car in front of the engine car – we have not yet answered one of the most important questions – how is one to know if the book they are planning on reading qualifies as being “large?” This is a complicated question about which book historians have debated for hundreds of years. Though an individual who is truly troubled by this matter is certainly encouraged to delve into the rich scholarly literature on the topic, for the purposes of the present discussion let us supply a simple answer: you will know. Certainly, context matters a great deal here and a book that seems a fine normal size when read in sparsely crowded public transit may feel mammoth when one tries to crack its covers aboard a packed subway car. A normal hardcover book that looked so standard in size when plucked off the shelf may now seem as though it was originally created for a giant. For the purposes of being helpful here are some particular types of books, and some specific ones, that are often considered “too large” when individuals attempt to read them in the confines of rush-hour-full public transit:

  • World atlases containing fold out maps;
  • Encyclopedias – particularly entire encyclopedia sets;
  • Gutenberg bibles;
  • Art books with high quality reproductions of paintings;
  • The Necronomicon (note – this should not be read in public places);
  • Hardcover, comprehensive, dictionaries;
  • Books that weigh in excess of fifty-four pounds;
  • Vellum bound illuminated manuscripts;
  • Books that seem as though they would more appropriately be called “tomes.”
  • Honorable mention: full-size Torah scrolls;

The above list is by no means exhaustive. You may not know that a book is too large when first you see it – but when the time comes when the book has become “too large for convenience” you will know. Oh, but how you shall know!

3. To successfully read a large book when on crowded public transit one must be committed to the task (see point 1), yet such commitment should not come at the expense of showing basic courtesy to your fellow riders. Therefore, if you should (accidentally!) wallop one of the other passengers with the large book you are reading, for goodness sakes, apologize. If you must (briefly!) bump another person so as to be able to turn the pages, you should immediately say: “excuse me.” Furthermore, just because the person directly in front of you has their back turned to you, does not mean that you should feel as though you can rest your large book on their back. Try your best to maintain your balance, and avoid leaning on your fellow passengers. And if you have finished reading one volume of the encyclopedia and need to reach into your bag to retrieve the next volume, consider exiting the train and making this switch whilst waiting for the next public transport vehicle to come your way (switching books in a crowded space is a feat only to be attempted by highly skilled individuals). Reading a large book while riding in public transit does not give you permission to occupy more than a reasonable amount of space – remain mindful of this if you wish to succeed.

4. Here is a short, aphoristic, poem written by the forgotten poet Leo M. Zyemir that is fitting for the present discussion:

“Which carries more passengers

a train’s car or a book’s page?

Though you ask, others defer,

they leave counting for a sage.”

It may be that the poem made more sense in its original form – in Esperanto. (Note – Zyemir published rarely during his lifetime, and mainly in obscure political periodicals, but his archive remains a magnificent source of material)

5. Eventually, one of your fellow passengers may look at you, glance at the unwieldy size of the book you are reading and ask, with a mixture of disdain and humor, “why don’t you just get an e-reader?” or “why don’t you just read on your smart phone?” This can represent a galling challenge if you are not prepared for such questions – and indeed you will almost certainly not be prepared for such questions because, really, most people are not accustomed to having strangers speak to them while they are riding public transportation. There is a range of acceptable responses to such questions, which include, but are not limited to:

  • “Thank you, I will take your recommendation under consideration in the future.”
  • “Thank you, but I do not own an e-reader or a smart phone and am not interested in buying either.”
  • “Thank you, but I do not believe that we evolved opposable thumbs just to use them to tap at touch screens.”
  • “Actually, my name is Johannes Gutenberg and I am providing a public demonstration of the wonders of printing.”
  • “Yes, I suppose I could, but then how would you know what I am reading?”

This last response is a particularly important one to consider as a retort. True, it may strike some as though you are saying it to try and “show off” a bit, but such a suspicion could not be further from the truth. Let us have the nerve to put forward a fact which we all know but which is seldom said in this age of e-readers and smart phones: when somebody is reading on an e-reader, tablet or smart phone everybody is curious what book they are reading, and as the cover of said book cannot be seen everybody eventually comes to the conclusion that they must not want people to know what they are reading. Indeed, if you are reading on an e-reader, tablet or smart phone people may assume you are reading all manner of unsavory and offensive content! While reading a large book may fluster some of your fellow travelers just imagine how flustered they would be if they were preoccupied (they, evidently, forgot to bring a book of their own) with trying to figure out exactly what you are reading. Thus, if somebody should suggest that you procure an e-reader, tablet or smart phone on which to read in the future the best response may be to simply act as if you did not realize they were talking to you.

After all, who talks to strangers on public transit?

6. In Johan Hilary’s, long out of print, opus A Philosophy of Fencing appears the line:

“The master fencer becomes one with the sword – able to hold a heavy book in one hand whilst deftly parrying and thrusting with the other. The master fencer does not only hold this book, but reads from it at the very same moment – so great is the master fencer’s focus.”

The Venn diagram showing the overlap between “master fencers” and those who read large books on crowded public transit may demonstrate, to be frank, not too much overlap. Yet Hilary’s words nevertheless provide us with important insight into the type of calmness of mind, spatial awareness, and majestic balance that one must command to be able to effectively read in crowded transit. True, it is impossible to know whether Johan Hilary would have found the comparison inappropriate. Not simply because in his later years Hilary viciously attacked any and all who dared to treat his writings on fencing as in the least metaphorical or symbolic, not simply because he passed away many decades ago – but because there is no such philosopher as Johan Hilary and this fictional thinker left behind no actual Philosophy of Fencing. And though this point may appear deceptive it has been in service of reminding the reader that they must be nimble of foot and nimble of mind should they attempt to read a large book on crowded public transit.

7. Whenever possible it is advisable to carry multiple books. This serves many purposes – one has a book on hand to lend to a friend, one has a book on hand to donate to a makeshift library, and one has a book at the ready should they finish the book they were previously reading. If the main book one is reading, and therefore carrying, is rather large it can be quite wise for the other book to be significantly smaller. This secondary, smaller book can come in quite useful should one find oneself about to board crowded public transport, as a smaller book will likely be easier to read within a confined space. Some may see this as giving up, as surrendering, as being not truly committed to reading the large unwieldy book that you are trudging about with you. Alas, this may be so, but at least this way one does not wind up being that oddball in the subway car holding the Gutenberg bible up to the ceiling.

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[Image Note: The original image at the head of this piece comes from Wikimedia. It is titled: Crowded subway car of 7 train Queens bound late evening at 74th Street station. The image was taken by Daniel Schwen on Dec 6th, 2005. Here is a link to the original The image was edited by the author of this post]

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2015 by in Books, Ethics, Humor, The Commons and tagged , , , , , .

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