When I moved to New York three years ago, to start graduate school at Columbia University, I took pains to rationalize my decision to live in Brooklyn—rather than, say, Morningside Heights or Washington Heights or Harlem or, really, anywhere in the relative vicinity of campus. I would be studying in the nonfiction MFA program and writing about my parents, who were both originally from Brooklyn. So it was only natural to live in my ancestral homeland, right? Besides, I wanted to separate my home life from my school life, and I couldn’t do that if I were living just a short walk from campus. I needed
an hour-long trip on the subway to maintain that boundary.
I justified the commute another way, too: I would get swaths of my class reading done on the train. The Columbia MFA program is known for its focus not just on writing, but on reading like a writer, so I’d be expected to power through hundreds of pages per week. For my first semester alone, I had a 19-book-long reading list, and I would need to cram in reading time whenever possible. A long commute seemed ideal.
My justifications were met with skepticism by friends and family. How did I expect to focus on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays and lectures while sardine-packed into a subway car, squished by manspreaders and distracted by “SHOW TIME!” and “ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR SAVIOR” and “Are you Jewish, maybe?” and people clipping their fingernails and what is that smell? I informed my detractors that I would plant myself in a seat and make it work.
And I did. I completed my MFA in May, and over the three years of the program I successfully read several dozen memoirs, essay collections, novels, short story collections, and books of poetry while riding the 2/3 train. Here is one piece of wisdom I gained over the course of my commuter-reading trials and errors: avoid hardcover heavyweights with gossamer-thin pages and tiny lines of print (like that collected Emerson). Your pen will inadvertently cross out rather than underline as the train bumps into the station. On the other hand, slim paperbacks—like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects—are ideal for subterranean reading, as they can be folded in one hand and read even while straphanging.
My subway productivity was not limited to books. I have read and commented on workshop submissions and student essay drafts during my commute, always making a note of apology for the messiness of my handwriting (“Sorry—was on the train!”). I have amended lesson plans and refreshed my familiarity with class readings while barreling uptown to teach. All of this has helped me learn to accept train delays (mostly) with calm. At least I have something to read while I sit in the tunnel.
A bonus to reading while commuting: it earns you a degree of urban solitude. I have never been bothered by unwelcome conversation while nose-deep in a book. Sure, sometimes I hedge against comments—I covered the title of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick with Post-its to avoid innuendos—but a book in hand doubles as an I’m busy and an I’m not interested. Reading while commuting, which started out as a necessity, has become a welcome distraction from all the things that make the subway all but unbearable: the crowding, the noise, the delays, the smells. And so, even though I am done with my coursework and will no longer be reading against deadlines, I’ll never enter the MTA without something to read in hand.