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The Reading Life: Notes from underground

July 22, 2011 | 10:00 am

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I don't have much use for driving. Growing up in Manhattan, I wasn't raised with it, and even after 20 years in Southern California, I view it as a necessary evil, one of the compromises I've had to make with where I live. It's not that I'm uncomfortable behind the wheel; in fact, I tend to be more uncomfortable when someone else is behind the wheel. No, for me, the issue is that I have to pay attention, which (paradoxically, I suppose) feels like a distraction, pulling me away from things I'd rather do, like read.

I've been thinking about that this week since I've been in New York, where I travel everywhere with a book. It's like a dream: Get on the 4 or 6 or E train and read for half an hour, and then (miraculously) you are there. Such an experience is available in L.A. also -- but I don't commute by Metrolink, and the Metro doesn't extend to where I live. For me, then, the art of subway reading remains particular to the first city I ever lived in, and when I'm here, I re-experience it with a mixture of nostalgia and glee.

This week, I was reading a book about New York in the 1970s. Its touchstones were scenes that resonated for me -- the fiscal crisis, the early punk days, the sense of the city as a broken landscape, not so much apocalyptic as shattered, to borrow an image from the Rolling Stones song ("bite the Big Apple / don't mind the maggots") of the same name.

Thirty-plus years later, New York is very different, an urban theme park, Times Square like the Grove on steroids -- although, as of this spring anyway, there were still bedbugs uptown. But reading this book as I subwayed back and forth beneath Manhattan's pavement brought back my earliest experience of the city as public space, with a force that I can only describe as visceral.

Reading on a subway, after all, is a double-edged process: half-concealing, half-revealing. Underground, you can hide behind a book, avoid eye contact, withdraw from the world around you, even as you expose your interests, your peculiar twists of taste. I always look at what other riders are reading, and while I may not remember the people, I rarely forget the books. On one short ride this week, I saw readers immersed in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus" -- a refutation (to my mind anyway) of the idea that books have lost their currency.

If that seems a leap, so be it: We often find the world we seek. But I remain struck by a larger confluence, between reading on the train and reading in the world. Both involve what we might call engagement by withdrawal, in which we pull back from our surroundings to come together with another mind. That's how I've always felt when I read on the subway -- connected to the book I'm reading and to all the other readers in the car beside me, while enjoying the freedom not to pay attention to the road.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: The New York subway. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg