So here’s what happened. I was on the subway the other day and there was this middle-aged woman sitting across from me, lost in her own world. She was reading her Kindle, completely frozen in concentration, eerily disconnected from the environment around her. Apparently she loved reading that much. Watching her, I could almost hear the Reading Rainbow theme song playing over the intercom. Even as the tinny subway intercom squawked out the upcoming stops; a boisterous crowd of inner-city teenagers engaged each other in an unprovoked skirmish of “your-momma” jokes; and her immediate neighbors peeled open a ball of aluminum foil to reveal a glistening, smelly half-eaten hotdog lathered with all the fixins’; this lover of reading managed to maintain that same mega serene look on her face. It was like she was in the Matrix.
It occurred to me, while monitoring this woman for signs of life, that people who read novels on the subway are either very smart or very dumb. This is my feeling about anyone who locks in and reads actual books in loud, unpredictable environments. The big question is: are these people actually reading? Do they have have the same definition of “reading” as I do? Because perhaps they have a much more relaxed standard for what it means to read a book in the first place, and that’s why they’re able to do it even in the midst of such common subway distractions as fistfights and pepper spray attacks and hotdog unwrappers.
I’ve always believed that some people don’t’ really differentiate between “reading” and “looking at the words.” For me, when I read? I go all in. It’s totally Reading Rainbow time when I do it. I take a look and it’s right there in the book. When I read fiction—especially mainstream genre fiction—a crazy metamorphosis happens. I tend grow a short white beard and my hair goes white and I become James Cameron. I produce, direct, act, edit, score, and hold an off-the-cuff question and answer session with myself. And to pull off such supple brain gymnastics I require a Maxwell Smart cone of silence, and even then, I still read slow as crap.
Sometimes it takes me a while to get the scene right. James Cameron wouldn’t settle for poorly directed writing. If I can’t get a paragraph to live up to my high demands, I work the problem, recasting and reshooting the scene until it stimulates my imagination in some basic way. My work’s really cut out for me when I read Steven King; it takes me sooo long to shake the cheap SyFy mini-series look out of my head and replace it with a more creepy Stanley Kubrick aesthetic. I start to feel like CIA analyst Jack Ryan exhaustively pouring over reams and reams of phone transcripts and grainy photographs or whatever the hell he does all day besides hunting Red October. And if the book’s amazing right out of the gate? I spend just as much time trying to map out it’s genome like a Jurassic Park scientist, hoping to discover how the author managed to make the story work so well. And I know I’m not the only one who goes all Tron with his reading material. And yes, I’m aware that that was basically a film reference bonanza.
Read my Steven King “Dr. Sleep” Review
Bottom line: there’s no way I could do any of this while on some loud, stinking subway train, jostled this way and that by loud moms with all these big wide bags from the GAP, ever distracted with the very real possibility that I might miss my stop. I could look at the words, sure. I could get the most basic first draft of the book’s imagery. But could I even begin to “de-corn” a story or map its genome? No way.
So a new question could be: was this woman on the train so intelligent, so mentally disciplined and focused, that she could actually read while sitting there amidst all that subway chaos? I suppose it’s possible. Perhaps that’s what that so-called “being smart” thing is all about. Maybe Tron-reading is what everybody does, except most people don’t have to work nearly so hard for it as I do. It’s very possible. Or maybe these people are simply subway lifers and over the years they’ve learned to tune out all the noise.
But there’s always the other possibility. Could it be that Subway Reader was merely looking at the words on the page, and once she’d seen all the words on the page, she’d flip the page, and once she’d seen all the words in the book, she’d finally lift her head and declare, for all who would hear, that she’d “read” the book. Would she be able to summarize the book’s general plot? Have something to say about this character and that character? Comment on the author’s style. Sure. But if there was technology to project a person’s mind’s eye on a movie screen, and the technicians were to use this technology on this subway woman the minute she’d finished looking at all the words in the book, would the resulting movie not be, like, totally lame? Would it not look like a cheaply made Lifetime Original movie called “You Can’t Have My Daughter” or something?
I just don’t know.
What about you, reader. Are you smart enough or dumb enough to read on a subway train? Let’s hear it!