This is the second column in the second round of Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. In each round, the four contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Where do you read?
I’ve always loved reading where people can watch me read. It feels modestly dirty to say it, like owning up to a very dull fetish. One of my favorite places to read in public is the subway. I know, everyone reads on the subway. And I know, too, that it is annoying to wax rhapsodic about commonplace New York activities like this, especially now that we can’t safely do them—oh, how I long to ride the subway, oh how I wish I could read this perfectly handbag-sized paperback while going somewhere on the subway, oh how I miss surreptitiously reading over people’s shoulders on the subway, et cetera, et cetera.
Still, thinking of the subway reminds me of a specific pleasure of reading in public—the pleasure of having a secret. Some years ago, I was reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor on the 2 train, on a deliciously horrible, hot, hot summer day, everyone in the car sweating in unison. I liked the starkness of the book’s cover, black with unadorned all-caps type, no image, a cover that gave nothing away. It was that time when a lot of people were reading 50 Shades of Grey on the train, which surely was its own titillating pleasure to its readers and their amused onlookers. But instead, I relished the feeling that behind the stern façade of a hefty, serious-looking book, I was secretly wallowing in a filthy, gloriously insane alternate universe, brimming over with absurd Nabokovian smut (“the soft woggle of her bud-breasts”) and nobody knew. Or if they did, they withheld the knowing glance and smile—either flirtatious or icky—of recognition. It was my, or our, inside joke.
Sometimes, though, the pleasure of reading in public is the fantasy of having your secret found out. In the Nineties, I was one of those kids who was always dressing up to go skulk around the coffeeshop, in some trying-hard-not-to-try-too-hard getup I hoped would eventually become a signature style (reader, it never did). At times, I’d go to hang out with a friend who worked there on weekends; we’d smoke Camel Lights out the windows as she drove me home after closing time, then douse ourselves in Febreze so our parents wouldn’t notice, feeling sneaky and superior. But mostly I’d go just to sit at a corner table alone with a mug of coffee (black), perched on a chair with my legs crossed weird, performing an archly mannered rereading of Franny and Zooey or The Bell Jar for an indifferent audience of my peers. I was not much liked by most of these peers, but I had hope; after all, there were two high schools in my town. From what I recall, my dream was that someday a sensitive stranger from the other school would come in, see what I was reading and how I was reading it, and know that I was a rare and extraordinary person. We would fall in love and read Keats to each other in sun-dappled woods until we both left for college and broke up gracefully.
On reflection, it pains me a little to admit that some small but not insignificant part of the pleasure of reading on the subway today might be an updated version of my high school rom-com dream—the idea that someday I’d be reading something that only a very specific kind of reader would read, and by chance I’d look across the aisle at some rare and extraordinary person who’s reading it, too. We’d exchange fleeting glances, shy smiles—you can imagine the rest. Is it possible that this unbearably naïve part of me is just the same now as it was at fifteen? Must I admit to the truth that I still read in public in the hope that the right person will come along and read me?
The more I consider it, though, the more I realize that my lingering fondness for this fantasy is largely nostalgic. I still derive pleasure from the idea of it because coincidence is fun to think about, but I no longer actually hope for it to happen. This is partly because, as I’m entering that phase of life when, to quote 30 Rock, women are more likely to be mauled at the zoo than find a partner, I try not to speculate too much on the odds of meeting someone. But it’s also because my public reading habits—partly by choice but mostly by professional obligation—have grown increasingly idiosyncratic. My romantic fantasy has now warped into an anti-romantic anxiety: that someday my bookish meet-cute will come to pass, but the book that my train-mate and I are both reading will be some piece of joyless academic material that I really don’t want to talk about, and that other person will be some duller, more pedantic version of myself. In this terrible unaired episode of The Twilight Zone, we’ll end up together, disgruntled and bored, out of stubborn adherence to the long-abandoned dreams of adolescent romance. We’ll live quietly and resentfully ever after, in a dim apartment whose floors support a sprawling, hoarderly archipelago of teetering book islands, sedimented with duplicates and accidental triplicates of scholarly monographs.
What this mild-mannered nightmare reveals about my current thoughts on reading and romance brings me back, obliquely, to the original question: Where do I read? Or, following Kamran’s lead, where have I read, and how much do those places mean to me? But other than trains, planes and my apartment, I actually can’t remember where I’ve done most of my reading over the last several years. For various reasons, the act of reading has lost a lot of its symbolic romance for me—and, rather than feeling bereft, I feel a kind of relief. My deepest embarrassment about the whole subway-coffeeshop fantasy stems from the idea that I ever wanted my reading to fulfill someone else’s desire. I’m over that particular compulsion, but I’m also over something else: the expectation that reading with someone should be this transformative activity, thrumming with erotic potential. I’ve grown tired of the romantic tremulousness of reading. Perhaps this is just a symptom of a larger exhaustion I’m feeling, not only as a reader but as a teacher and a writer, too, about the expectation that reading should necessarily deliver anything spectacular—a frustration perhaps related to Tim’s meditations on missing epiphanies a few weeks ago. These days, I just want to read undramatically and talk about it untremulously, and it really doesn’t matter where that happens.
I still love reading in public, but I think now it’s because I’m interested in the everyday non-event of reading in company, rather than some rapturous idea of union. I want to read and be semi-enclosed in my private world, while surrounded by the soft globes of others, in their private worlds. One of the few places I’ve read recently that I remember and think of often is a little room in Oxford. I was there for a while after a hospital stay, being looked after by Merve and her husband Christian, my surrogate parents-slash-siblings. I hadn’t been able to read for a long stretch of time, and was beginning to fear that I’d never be able to again. Every day, I went to Merve’s office with her, and as she typed away quietly at the table, I sprawled on a tiny, uncomfortable loveseat, just reading. I read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and loved it. I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and hated it. I read for hours without tiring.
I think part of my allergic reaction to Normal People came from the fact that it is a romance novel, one that attempts to stir up the feelings that young, literary, sensitive people have for each other—in fact, exactly those big, achy, novelistic feelings that I yearned for years ago, as I sat with my copy of Plath open, staring moodily into my coffee cup. Remembering those teenage feelings and no longer feeling them made me both enervated and relieved. I didn’t like the book, but I did like reading it. There was some subtle, unromantic magic about the place and the moment; I felt intensely focused but free to exclaim or guffaw, to interrupt my companion’s work to read passages aloud that were either sublime or ludicrous, to read entirely for myself but not be entirely alone.