The Protagonist interviewed several New Yorkers this week with the goal of better understanding the incredibly complex psychology behind the act of subway reading.
Anticipating primarily tales of the embarrassment surrounding reading something too “trashy” or juvenile, or, alternatively, something too pretentious, and how all this is impacted by the omnipresence of e-readers, or even how hard it is to focus on one’s book at all with all these coursing thoughts, I stumbled across a different, more prevalent phenomenon altogether.
While New Yorkers are overwhelmingly most embarrassed to be caught reading the “dorky” stuff, the fact is this: subway reading has gotten too damn sexual.
If it’s not the subway-reading-pickup-game — with book as mere conduit for something much more improper — it’s secret or not-so-secret pornographic reading, a whole universe of secret sex codes, presumptions about others’ sex lives and so on.
Kambri Crews, an author herself, who publicly reads whatever she wants (including Harry Potter) reserves judgment of what others read…for the most part.
“I always notice what others are reading but usually don’t think much of it,” says Crews. “Unless it’s some young kid with fake glasses reading Anna Karenina or something lofty and I think, ‘Yeah, right. Whatever,’ and sprain my eye muscles from rolling them so hard.”
Does anyone show an interest in what she’s reading? “Only men who are looking for action ever comment on what I’m reading,” says Crews.
According to comedian and prolific subway-reader Dan Nainan, “The thought of having to sit on the subway with nothing to do is unacceptable.”
Nainan doesn’t care what people think of his literary choices. “A friend of mine, Steve Chandler, wrote a fantastic book called 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself,” Nainan explains. “One of his tips asks, why should what someone else thinks affect how I feel?”
But then the plot thickens. “I will say that reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway has been quite interesting,” says Nainan. “Would you believe that I’ve had a few women start conversations with me about that book? One of these conversations even led to a date.”
Nainan offers an observation: “I see many women reading this book, all of them are reading it on e-readers – I think they are too embarrassed to actually read the physical book itself…some of them glance around furtively to make sure that nobody is seeing them read the book.”
“If a man were looking at pornography on the subway, or anywhere else in public, he would be excoriated,” he says. “Apparently, it’s okay for women to read pornography on the other hand.”
Another subway reader, Emily Glickman, echoes Nainan: “Recently I saw a woman openly reading Fifty Shades of Grey, the physical book, and thought that was a little off.”
Brooklynite Shelley Chapman, who says: “Electronics nowadays emit levels of radiation that can bother [her] after a while,” to explain her support of physical books, is not afraid to advertise her presumptions about others based on what they read.
“If I noticed someone reading a book titled My Baby Daddy Part 3, I’d wonder how in the heck they even managed to read Part 1 and 2,” says Chapman.
“Admittedly, there are a few books depending on the cover illustrations that I won’t as readily read on the train,” she says. “Such as my books on Tantra.”
With all the judgment, it’s no wonder some readers are a little self-conscious. Dustin Nelson remembers reading Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes on the train and feeling “a little weird about [it.]”
“I thought someone was going to see one of the chapter titles sitting next to me, since the chapter titles there are pretty dirty,” Nelson explains. “Maybe they’d think I was coming onto them with my book.”
Hunt Ethridge, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to confess his literary interests aren’t exactly pure: “I subscribe to the Erotica Center on my Kindle and on slow, cold days, I may read something spicy on my way home. That’s when it’s the best!” Others agree they use e-readers if they plan to read something a little personal, like a self-help book.
Hashim Locario, a dating coach and author, has even more aggressive intentions. Locario wrote a book for men called How to Have Sex with 2 Women a Day.
“When I first got the hard copies of the book printed I would read it on the train so people could see what I was reading,” says Locario. “Women would give me strange looks and men would always ask me where I got the book.”
“I actually sold a couple on the train that way,” he says.
Locario adds: “I actually used to pick up girls by approaching them and asking them about what they were reading.”
In fairness, some New Yorkers interviewed also had far more innocent intentions when they sparked up a conversation about books, or approached subway reading in general.
Christina DiRusso says she “love[s] giving out recommendations and always asks for ideas back.”
Bob Madison and his husband often read aloud to each other on the subway.
“This can sometimes raise eyebrows when it’s something like Tik-Tok of Oz,” he explains. “Just a couple of weeks ago we were reading Fer-der-lance, the first Nero Wolfe mystery on the train, and found a bit that was so smartly written and so funny that we were howling all the way to Chambers Street.”
Madison adds: “Then my husband was reading The Gods of Mars, an old adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and he read a particularly over-the-top bit to me that I’m sure must’ve raised the eyebrows of anyone listening.”
While using books to pick up dates is far from a new phenomenon, The Protagonist is left wondering if the ubiquity of e-readers puts a damper on the process, or facilitates it further. One thing is for sure, e-readers make it more difficult to form an assumption based on what’s being read, though as some point out — at the very least they do make a statement about someone’s disposable income level.
Whatever the motive, it’s safe to say, when people idly read on the subway, they usually aren’t just idly reading. And the people casually not looking? Well, you know.
Tags: 50 shades of grey, Alissa Fleck, Books, Brooklyn, Comedians, commuting, Dan Nainan, E-Readers, Kindle, literature, manhattan, Mayor Bloomberg, Metro, New Yorkers, novels, reading, relationships, sex, subway, Trains
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