Thursday, January 10, 2013

why I believe in reading books on trains

One of my great pleasures while riding the train (and I speak of "the train" not as the grandly nostalgic epitome of mass-transit pleasure, but as the everyday, many person vehicle) is seeing the number of people who spend their time there, trapped shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee, with their faces in books. I sit on the abused, plastic-upholstered seat that is my own for the space of a ride, stare at all the pages being turned, and feel happiness. It's a genuine wash of that emotion too; I do not exaggerate by calling it "happiness." A blooming glow of satisfaction unfurls in my heart, camaraderie (manufactured falsely, no doubt), and the absurd sensation that here is one of those tiny signs that indicate that the world will be alright. That things are, at the bottom of it all, on the road to good.

At first I thought this ridiculous feeling was the result of being a bookish person. I love books. I love some of them dearly. I love them so much that I'm convinced I'll write one at some point in the not too far off future. I love them so much that I work in bookstores in my spare time and press them into the hands of other people, judging them, yes, but also feeling always a little bit like we are winking at each other. Of course my heart is warmed by the books on the train! The world keeps telling us that the book is faltering and we say, "No! I read them on the train."

And then I thought about it some more and realized that the damage goes deeper than that, that I'm a believer in a frenzy of belief. I was brought up on books, spoiled with books. I've read so many of them in my life that they're one of the great pillars that hold up my world. The way I understand living, the good and the bad and the things worth wanting, has been sifted down and tempered by the things I've read. The poles of my desires are tethered to the stories I've consumed. I can't point to specifics because they aren't specific. There's no particular novel or character that took my hand and led me on my way. But the shape of this thing that I consider me, any depth or conviction that I possess, has been partially cultivated by the books I've read. Books stuff me with lives I will never live. When I was a kid, they gave me the chance to try on things like passion, suffering, and heroism, all blown up beyond the scope of a shy girl with a happy family in a calmly wonderful swathe of suburbia.

I am not religious. But there are three things that I believe in with complete and utter fervency: art, the people I love, and books. Not books as objects. As much as I, personally, pine for my stacks of squared up paper, if I'm really honest, I don't give a fig about whether a book comes bound or on a screen. But, books as a translation of life between one person and another, books as a joy ride to figuring out what you think matters… that gives me the shivers. 

And that's why I believe in reading books on trains.