Strange as it sounds, reading a book while sitting on public transportation may be what I like best about living in a big city. I would even go as far as to say reading on a train or bus is what urban dwelling is about, a near perfect illustration of how living in a city often means being simultaneously public and anonymous, surrounded by strangers at exactly the moment you just want to be left alone.
Thea Crum, a visiting economic development planner at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute, described this feeling as "that weird juxtaposition of intimacy and isolation that only a big city can deliver so well."
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The problem is, for this strange little dance to continue, I need to be able to see what you're reading.
When I'm on the bus or the train, I need to be able to crane my head, identify the cover of the book you're reading and wonder something about you and why you're reading that. And you need to be able glance across the seat and sneak a fleeting glimpse at whatever it is I may be reading and wonder the same thing.
"You may not say anything to each other," Crum said, "you may never even acknowledge the other person. But looking quick at the cover of what a stranger is reading, you still feel you've had some engagement. It's like peeping through a window and getting a glimpse into another life. And it seems to be disappearing now."
There are a lot of good reasons to worry about the fate of the printed word. But one of the least appreciated reasons is that when you're reading a book on a Kindle or an iPad or a two-inch cell phone screen, I can't eavesdrop on what you're reading. OK, maybe I'm able to catch a digital title heading. But it's not the same.
Never mind judging a book by its cover.
How can I judge you by the cover of the book you're reading if there is no cover? Conversely, how can I passive-aggressively remind my fellow travelers that, why, yes, I am midway through "The Power Broker"?
"To me, part of the fun of a city is seeing what everyone is reading," said Chip Kidd, the renowned book designer and associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf. "In the past, I could literally see who was reading my books. With the Kindle or whatever, that's getting lost — e-books are the book-cover equivalents of burqas."
If you work in publishing, the demise of book covers on public transportation is not minor — without a book advertising itself to the world, a marketing strategy as old as publishing evaporates. But for the rest of us, ramifications are not trivial. We get interested in books via public transportation. Something as routine as a commute is a snapshot of who's reading what where — text books in Hyde Park, James Patterson in Lincoln Park, Jhumpa Lahiri in Rogers Park. And at a time when the country rarely seems to be watching the same TV show, going to the same movie or listening to the same song — at a time when the mass experience seems dead — it can still occasionally feel like everyone on the CTA is reading the same thing.
Right now, it's the"Game of Thrones"series. Before that, it was "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." (And before that, "The Time Traveler's Wife.") But an e-reader is like a textbook bag over a Playboy. Which is maybe why — hey! — I just realized half of you guys with Kindles on the 147 bus are reading "Fifty Shades of Grey."
When I asked book designers and urban planners and literature professors about the decline of the book cover on public transportation, words such as "Orwellian" and "homogenization" came up frequently, usually as a way of describing the sad contemporary experience of looking across a bus or train car and noticing that everyone around you who is reading is reading a cell phone or some slender gray electronic device. Indeed, there's something Orwellian about how I just replaced the word "book" with the more bloodless "electronic device." But then, just as Jane Jacobs wrote in her 1961 landmark study "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" that "a lively street always has its users and pure watchers," the randomness and variety and art work of a tangible book being cradled by a commuter lends genuine soul to a metropolis.
Just this morning, for instance, on my way to work, there was a lanky college student — a guy in a Bulls jersey who looked as though he would be more comfortable seeing"The Avengers"again — incongruously devouring Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette. And the strangest thing was, he looked riveted.
Bill Savage, who teaches literature and literary culture at Northwestern University — and who wrote his own college dissertation on how Nelson Algren's reputation can be understood through Algren's book covers — said literary eavesdropping on public transportation is not unlike browsing the book shelves in someone's home to get a better clue of who they are. The seeming incongruities between book and owner can be rich. He recalled being on the train and seeing "this lovely punk rock girl pull out an urban studies book I edited. I told her I worked on it. She said she was reading it for a book club.
"If she had pulled that up on a Kindle, I'd have never had that experience, that connector would not be there."
And the future of literary eavesdropping?
Savage said he's noticed something curious about e-readers — among strangers, e-readers often lead to conversations about e-readers, not books. That kind of tech curiosity only lasts so long, though. Andrew Piper, a language and literature professor at McGill University whose book "Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times" will be released in fall, said e-readers may eventually compensate for this lack of an obvious cover. Maybe the underside of your tablet will have a display screen. Maybe every tablet will transmit the title of the book being read to every other tablet. The upside, he said, is that this "is much more precise than the old method of snooping. The downside is that, well — that does sound a bit creepier."
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features writer.
Check out the reading habits of our city in the map below or click here to zoom in.