Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reading on the Train

Like many (or most, depending on where you live) people, I take public transportation to work. I drive a couple of miles to take the PATCO (Port Authority Transit Company) Hi-Speed Line, a train which runs between southern New Jersey and center city Philadelphia. The Hi-Speed Line has been running since the late '60's. One of the stops was in Haddonfield, NJ, where I grew up and where my parents had their restaurant. All the other stops along the line were above-ground but Haddonfield, being a sort of Main Line-ish, mini-Wesport, CT type town, was having none of that: they had to engineer things so that the track through Haddonfield was underground, thereby preserving the tranquil, tasteful, Colonial atmosphere of the town. It was a big damn deal and at the time it was the sine qua non of rapid transit. In fact its stop speed, as I understand it, is 65 mph, but that was considered so fast in 1969 (for a train) that one of the waitresses at the restaurant refused to set foot on it until assured it was safe.

     But I digress. One of the things I find interesting about the train ride is watching the people and, lately, observing what they read. Of course there are the daily papers, the Philly weeklies and the Metro, a free little tabloid publication that specializes in very, very brief stories about current events, sports and the like. But in addition, I've noticed that lots of people still read books.
     Tonight, for example, on the way home I observed a middle-aged man reading Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear, a science fiction novel described on as being a "...difficult but rewarding short novel (about) an interstellar colony ship gone astray." The hero is "an amnesiac starship crew member just released from a deep hibernation state called Dreamtime. Naked, disoriented, and forced... to find safety somewhere among a confusing network of passageways, the man eventually receives help from an odd assortment of fellow Dreamtime refugees." Sounds like a typical day at work to me.
     I see hardcovers and paperbacks, many in those clear plastic book jackets favored by public libraries. I also see a fair number of Kindles or Nooks or other e-readers, but it's heartening to see how many people still like to hold a real book in their hands, to become engrossed in a good story, anxious to turn the page. I have nothing against e-readers, but there will always be something less than satisfying about swiping my index finger across a screen and hearing the manufactured sound of a turning page. 
     I see nonfiction, serious novels, bodice rippers and more.
     I also see a very wide range of "self help" and inspirational books, including Bibles and palm-sized New Testaments. I saw a young man the other day reading a book called The Jesus Style and even I knew it probably wasn't about what to wear when raising the dead. Turns out it's about, among other things, how to lead by serving others and what it might have been like to know Jesus as a man. It's written by someone named Gayle Erwin, who has also written The Spirit Style and The Father Style ("a fresh look at the nature of God the Father").
     There are some meditation recordings on my iPod and I'll listen to them once in a while on the way in to work, anticipating being stressed if not stressed out already and trying to calm myself with deep breathing instruction delivered by a woman with a slightly British accent and a smoky, Public Radio kind of voice. And as I breathe and try to calm myself and expel the fear and stress (mind you, this is before I've arrived at work) I look around at the people with their sacred texts and self-help books and I don't feel quite so alone. Everybody, I suppose, needs a little something -- a calming influence, encouragement, peace of mind -- and I suppose reading the New Testament or a book about what we can learn from Jesus certainly beats a slug of gin first thing in the morning.
     I want to ask why so many people are so stressed or in need of spiritual support. Not that spiritual support is a bad thing, necessarily, but before I can finish asking the question I can think of a dozen good reasons why people are on edge: the economy, gas prices, job security and the madness in the Middle East to name a few. We find security and peace wherever we can -- a moment of laughter, the kind of laughter that just erupts from you like a brilliant, delicious surprise. Or a few deep breaths and five minutes away from the computer. The embrace of someone we love. 

     Or a book on the train, the words of someone we'll probably never meet, a voice that tells us in one way or another "It's okay, it will all work out. Do your best. You're perfect just the way you are." By lunchtime it may all seem like a crock, but first thing in the morning it can be as essential as coffee.

1 comment:

  1. My attention was immediately abducted by your "Reading on the Train" headline as it is something that I fervently practice, and as a fellow traveler I also can't help but be curious by what those around me are reading, and more curious about those that just sit apparently alone with themselves. I so enjoy reading on the train that I can't understand why someone would choose to just do nothing but ride. There is just so much pleasure and insight to be gained from a good book. I take the train from Ipswich to Boston and work at the Museum of Fine Arts. My own reading rambles widely (maybe even wildly), and recently I have shifted my routine, reading one book on the morning commute and another on the way home. Currently I'm reading a book of collected Native American Wisdom, which I guess would fall into the inspirational/self-improvement class, and Brian Greene's "The Hidden Reality" , about parallel universes and the deep laws of the cosmos, or so the blurb says. Not that I'm deep...I recently finished another of James Patterson's cops and crazed killers books on the inbound and "How to Write a Sentence" on the outbound, along with a couple of volumes of Rilke's work. I enjoyed your observations and feel like a fellow traveler on the train. Keep writing. Good stuff...