This is the third column in the second round of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life. In each round, the contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Where do you read?
I’m going to begin with a confession: I think Sarah and I might be the self-hating academic soul mates she describes in her column, subsisting at mid-life on the fumes of our pretentious adolescent fantasies. I too once imagined falling in love in a smoky coffeehouse with someone who didn’t go to my high school based on our shared enthusiasm for J. D. Salinger. Moreover, while it has become a significantly less tremulous affair, I too continue to love reading in public, and on the subway more than anywhere else. Indeed the latter’s present unavailability has allowed it to regain some of its allure. Thus I can’t resist the temptation to do exactly the annoying thing that Sarah warned against, namely to “wax rhapsodic about commonplace New York activities.” But I’m guessing she would expect no less from the bookish train-mate of her nightmares.
So, let’s imagine it’s a random pre-COVID-19 weekday morning and I’m approaching the entrance to my subway stop at Grand Army Plaza, which is marked by a glowing green globe, the color of a library desk lamp. I stutter-sprint down the stairs, my messenger bag pummeling my thigh. The air smells like a greasy motor. The turnstile succumbs to a gentle push. Ka-chunk! it exclaims: “Welcome back!” Then one more flight down and I’m weaving through the crowds awaiting the train that’s due in one minute, speed-walking, if necessary, on the safety-yellow, cleated cliff edge of the platform, but also reconnoitering the area ahead for possible acquaintances, relatives, parents of my kid’s friends, anyone who might waylay me before I can get my book out. The subway screeches in; I board the second car from the front (always the least crowded), and plant myself by the doors, so I can lean back on them for balance. Very few people have physical books. Those who do are concerned, like me, for the state of their souls; I can tell by the frequent mentions of Jesus on the pages I spy. What book have I brought? Let’s say it’s a Henry James novel. I know it seems like a poor fit: the genteel James amid the teeming masses. But he makes the train car roomier; I dive, as it were, into a spacious bath of subclauses and subtleties and swim among them for the duration of the ride. If it gets too crowded, I can always hold James up in the air above the bodies that are pressed against me and crane my neck to read him.
The Master’s notorious screed registering his horror at the vulgar, crowded, ugly, loud city he encountered when he visited Manhattan after two decades abroad in 1904 did not mention the subway. But the novel I’ve brought for my commute, The Wings of the Dove (1902), does feature a crucial scene on the London Underground. Kate Croy and Merton Densher, having hit it off at a “gallery” party but without sharing any means of making future contact, are fortunate enough to find themselves six months later in the same train car. What follows could almost be a Craigslist Missed Connection. After several meaningful glances, Merton intentionally misses his stop, and upon finding a seat opposite Kate suddenly vacant, seizes it. “It helped them,” James remarks, “moreover, with strangers on either side, little to talk; though this very restriction perhaps made such a mark for them as nothing else could have done.” A moment later the seat next to Kate becomes available; Merton takes it, but still can think of nothing to say. It doesn’t matter; she’s not listening.
She was so occupied with a certainty that one of the persons opposite, a youngish man with a single eyeglass, which he kept constantly in position, had made her out from the first as visibly, as strangely affected. If such a person made her out, what then did Densher do?—a question in truth sufficiently answered when, on their reaching her station, he instantly followed her out of the train.
It’s funny, of course, how much the couple’s desire for each other depends upon their awareness of the strangers watching them. It reminds me of a spectacle that I’ve never been able to expel from my mind. Looking up from my book one morning on the subway, I beheld a boy and girl standing close and staring fixedly and adoringly into each other’s sleepy, postcoital eyes. But for the entire twenty-minute ride. Every now and then the girl would turn her head slightly, and the boy would gently but firmly push it back so they could resume their mutual gaze, his face a mask of imperturbable placidity. Memory places a black beanie on his head, a goatee on his chin, but that might just be my antipathy adding details. Honestly, I found their smugness, their pretense of a love so powerful it could shut out the whole world—which was after all just unacknowledged exhibitionism—and most of all their unashamed happiness entirely appalling. I blame the boy more than the girl; if she ever thinks back on that relationship, which is surely over by now, she must say to herself, “Well that was embarrassing!”
But a similar, if less sophomoric, smugness also afflicts Kate and Merton. Like many pairs of characters in the late James who get to match their superpowers of discernment, they are absurdly pleased with themselves when they are together, convinced that they are uniquely deserving of each other’s genius. “Everything between our young couple,” James observes describing an early rendezvous, “moved today, in spite of their pauses, their margin, to a quicker measure.” Merton, Kate notes, “had his air, so constant at this stage, as of her giving him finer things than any one to think about.” What makes their interactions particularly annoying, of course, is that they represent the realization of the adolescent romantic fantasy that Sarah and I once harbored: that perfect meeting of the minds signaled, we imagined, by a shared enthusiasm for a particular author.
And yet it’s worth noting that the meeting of Kate and Merton’s minds is not in fact perfect. The former is invariably one step ahead of the latter, which only seems to intensify their mutual attraction. “It took him,” James reports in the midst of their confab, “another moment” to grasp Kate’s meaning, but a few beats later after he makes an enigmatic remark, “she took it straight up.” Though less cultured than her counterpart, Kate offers Merton not only love but also an education.
Merton is not the only one being educated. Kate remarks at the end of the scene, tersely summing up her situation—her penniless disgraced dad and her calculating sister both relying on her to charm some money out of her shrewd and rich aunt who will comply but only if she marries the right sort of person—“there it is.” As we readers encounter this pregnant phrase, James wants us to do what Merton is doing, namely to try our best to glimpse the whole edifice of thoughts and desires, agendas and counter-agendas, feelings built upon other feelings, impressions of other impressions signified by Kate’s “it.”
But if James is providing me with an education similar to the one Kate provides Merton, then my relationship to the author, as I read him on the crowded subway, might also be viewed as a kind of romance. Is it possible, I wonder, that he is favoring me with these, his most brilliant and refined thoughts today? Whereas I once hoped the right book prominently displayed might entice my future soul mate, now after being married ten years and suffering all the strange satisfactions and enjoying all the sharp yearnings that state can bring, I feel I can get just about everything I need from the book itself. Gazing upon the page as intently as that besotted couple once gazed into each other’s eyes, I may as well be declaring to everyone around me, “Please don’t come any closer! Henry James and I are having a moment!”
But it’s not that I want to be left completely alone. While Sarah concludes that she enjoys reading in the company of others—though not in relation to “someone else’s desire”—I haven’t yet entirely disentangled reading from my romantic fantasies. That’s why, like Kate and Merton, like that pair I found so loathsome, I need to have other people around me. From time to time I look up from my book and ask myself: how many intrigues are happening right in front of me, awaiting detection, if I can only learn the lessons James is trying to teach me? How many people are in search of another pair of eyes that might single them out, elevate them above the crowd, follow them longingly as they walk away? Those who reject James for his elitism are missing the point: nothing is more common than the desire to be made special by love. I’ll take what I can get from his novel and then bring it with me when I exit the train.