What does it take to read a book on a train?

Well, it takes a train, a reader, and a book… and then maybe some quiet and other conditions.

When I saw the GothamSchools link “Liza Featherstone: Everyone’s reading on the subways, but that culture is under threat,” I thought Featherstone’s piece (on AM New York) would be about the noise on subways. It wasn’t, so that will be the subject here. This may be somewhat New Yorkish in focus, but I imagine some of it applies to other places.

I used to treasure my reading time on subway rides (even if I was falling asleep, as I often am at the end of a hectic day). Now, I can only count on the morning rides for reading.

Almost every day, when I ride home from school, a bunch of youngsters get on with a boombox, announce “What time is it? Showtime!,” turn on the throbbing music, and start break dancing–doing flips, standing on their heads, wiggling their legs in the air, etc. They’re careful not to swing their feet into anyone’s forehead–so long as everyone is on guard and doesn’t lurch forward all of a sudden.

Some of these dancers have remarkable agility. You (or I) can’t help admiring their aerobic precision on crowded and rickety trains.

But what happens to reading on the train, if it’s always “showtime”? I feel like bursting into a train car, yelling, “What time is it? Book time!” and then just opening a book. That would never fly, though; the next noisy act would put an end to my gesture.

Some say that this is part of New York culture: that if no one were allowed to perform on trains, the city would lose much of its character and soul. There’s something to that. To be a New Yorker, according to many, is to stay unfazed while crazy stuff happens around you–and even enjoy it.

But reading is also part of New York culture, and even the staunchest New Yorkers can’t read well when there’s too much brouhaha. (When there’s break dancing, I see few readers. Most people look up or away.)

What does this have to do with education? you might ask. Well,the problem is not that we live in a noisy world (we do–but there’s no changing that). The real problem lies in the uncertainty about how to stand up to it. Many of us–including myself–let the noise have the upper hand, at least in certain contexts.

In the next piece (which I am scheduling for tomorrow) I will take a look at the uncertainty.

(Update: tomorrow’s post will be about something else. I had a few false starts with the uncertainty piece–too large a topic.)



  1. I too, often wish to read in loud noisy places and can only handle up to a certain level of craziness :(.

    I share your pain.