Tuesday, 8 January 2013

More notes from the underground: What people are reading on the tube

A while ago, during the course of my working day, which can tend to take me across London several times, I did a totally non-scientific semi-survey of what people were doing on the tube. I discovered that they were mostly still reading real books; and in this time of uncertainty in the book world, I felt it was time to have another look.

I know that I am biased. I think e-books are really quite pointless, unless you want to carry around a hundred books at a time. I admit that they have their uses as textbooks and teaching aids; but replacing a bookcase, a library, a bookshop with empty space is something too horrifying to contemplate. A book is a friend, a totem, a signifier of so much in your life: when I think of the way that I carried around with me my copies of Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King when I was ten or eleven, as if they were my teddy and I was four; I can't imagine anyone doing that with a Kindle. You cannot fall in love with an electronic device. They break, are outmoded; your favourite paperback will be with you for ever.  I have dutifully noted everything I saw today, and we can draw our own anecdotal conclusions from it. Know that Jasper Fforde, in particular, should be happy, if nothing else.

Early this morning, on the snazzy, hipsterish overgound from Whitechapel to Canada Water, I saw a - you guessed it - hipster reading Slaughterhouse 5 on the platform; near him was a woman in her 30s, engrossed in a Jo Nesbo. The hipster looked pretty deep into his Vonnegut. I hope he had been up all night but he was probably just on his way to work.

I switched from the cool orange line to the silvery, ultra-modern Jubilee; and as if in concord with the line's spirit, a woman was reading that most modern of hits, The Hunger Games - the adult version, of course. A young man was peering, carefully, at a large hardback, which turned out to be Putin's Oil by Martin Sixsmith: it took me a long time to find that out, as one of the problems with looking at what people are reading is that it's very hard to conceal the fact that you are trying to look at the books, and asking people what they are reading on the tube is tantamount to saying, "Hello, I like cheese!" and dancing around playing Imagine on the recorder. There was a middle-aged lady reading a self help book; and a girl with orange hair perusing a Batman graphic novel. I mean comic. No, graphic novel. This was at around 830 in the morning.

On the Jubilee Line from Green Park to Waterloo, a man had a yellow paperback peeking out of his pocket, which I hope against hope was a Gallimard. In the same carriage, another chap was ensconced with The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson - he loved it so much that he didn't even stop reading when he walked off the train. There were plenty of Metros and Time Outs; and only one, paunchy buffer, flicking at his tablet. This was at 1030.

On the train from Waterloo to Clapham Junction there were hardly any people, let alone books; on the way back from Clapham South on the Northern line, there was the first of a brace of women reading the latest Jasper Fforde, and sitting opposite her, a woman reading Ali McNamara's From Notting Hill to New York Actually, which happened to have a quote from Katie Fforde on it, who is Jasper Fforde's cousin, so if you are a Fforde, then you are in luck. A woman at right angles to the Ffordes was engrossed in Psychologies magazine; there were no Kindles.

When I switched at Kennington to the Charing Cross line, I stalked a lady clutching a paperback to see what it was; after the police had been called and explanations made, I saw that it was a Tim Winton. I don't know who he is. Someone in the next carriage was, alas, reading The Guernsey Potato Peel and Yawn Society; at Waterloo, a woman reading a book called The Village climbed on. This seems to be the book group line.

The horrible, touristy, gaspy Piccadilly line yielded fewer results. There were plenty of cross people in puffa jackets poking at their phones. A girl with a Kindle got on at Piccadilly; there was a woman reading The Guardian, angrily. That is all I have to say about the Piccadilly line.

Later, on the way up to Kings Cross on the hated blue line, I saw something to make me feel better: a lady holding a battered copy of some Sherlock Holmes stories - she was reading The Speckled Band. Here was the other Jasper Fforde - of course, it may have been the same person, which is a coincidence that Fforde himself would approve of, but I doubt it. My favourite person of the day was also on this carriage: a young man in a red jacket and a stripy bow tie, reading a fat paperback by Neal Stephenson, who I see writes historical epics. Kudos to you red jacket man. This was quite the carriage for real-book-ophiles: a blonde with a book by someone called Edwardson; a man reading one of those In the Merde books: and then someone had to spoil it all by coming on with a beanie and firing up his damned Kindle.

Homeward bound, from Kings Cross to Whitechapel on the old-maidenly Hammersmith and City line, was heartwarming. There were two youngish men, both reading battered paperbacks, so intently that I could not see the spines or the covers; they hardly looked up. One finds oneself, on this exercise, wishing that they would; but it's nice to think that they are so mesmerised. And further down was a girl reading a proper, jacketless, black-bound hardback; I wanted to shake her hand. There was only one Kindle.

So there you go. A broad spectrum of lines; a broad spectrum of books; hardly any electronic devices. Of course it's entirely possible that there were carriages full of them on either side of me. Maybe I have radar for book people. But maybe what I thought about, when Kindles first appeared, is true: that people will buy them, or get given them for Christmas; download a hundred books; and then, gradually, put them away, and return to the tangible charms of their beloved paperbacks.

Who knows. All I know is that I'd rather see a carriage full of dog-eared tomes than bland, grey devices. Think about this: in science fiction films, there are no books in any of the ships, ever. And what are people like in science fiction films? Generally, very dull indeed. Go into a house with no books, and you will see what I mean.

Here's to the real book, and its continued future, which, from my brief delve underground, looks to be relatively secure. (Oh, and just for the record, I had a Vintage paperback of John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning - which, bizarrely, I only seem to read on public transport.) Let the campaign for real books begin.


  1. Ha ha! Enjoyed this very much, thank you!

  2. Excellent piece! I work at the Toronto Public Library (the third busiest system in the world, so they say) and we spend a lot of time helping people who've just received e-devices try and download e-books from the library's website. Why the library is in the business of promoting something that stops people from coming into libraries is another question, but based on anecdotal evidence I get the feeling a lot of people get e-devices as a gift or on a whim, rather like waffle makers. Once the novelty wears off I think they end up in the back of a drawer or re-gifted...again, just like waffle makers. A lot of people are reading books on the Toronto subway, and the majority are still doing it old school.

  3. Thanks, and good to hear that Toronto is keeping the book flame burning (as it were...)

  4. I greatly enjoyed your observations, and the opportunity to vicariously travel by Tube, but I'm concerned about a couple of things: you don't know who Tim Winton is? Please read one (or more) of his books as soon as possible.
    Any of them - Cloudstreet and Dirt Music are two of his more popular ones, but you could go for the more obscure Scissions or That Eye The Sky if you prefer. Or his middle-grade/Young Adult series about Lockie Leonard (which are excellent stories, well told).
    Also, I want to say that it is possible to love books, bookshops, libraries, secondhand books, new books, borrowed books, book sales, and to consider crammed bookshelves the best interior decoration ever, and to have Too Many Books (or is it Too Little Shelf Space?), and still own, use and appreciate an e-reader.
    It's brilliant being able to carry hundreds of books around! I do have a few hundred books on my e-reader that I haven't read, but the same applies to my paper books - I just keep buying books, so my To Read shelves keep growing, even while I'm reading a novel or three a week (including re-reads).
    Maybe it would help if there was an option to show the cover design of the book currently being read on the e-reader? then fellow passengers would be able to do the head tilt to try and read the title or make out the image through the person's hands.
    then again, I have a Laurel Burch colourful cats fabric cover (reinforced) on my e-reader, so it'd be hard to see an e-cover through that. It's definitely not dull and grey, though.

  5. I shall certainly seek Mr Winton out. Yes, I can see that you might find an e-reader useful - but I still think that as a child it is impossible to love an e-reader in the same way that you can love a physical book; I think that is detrimental to the way that children learn how to read, if they lose that tangible sense.

  6. Phil, have you come across this?


    Lovely site but, as you would expect from our American cousins, reliant on visual rather than Womack-conjured images.

  7. I have a feeling Londoners wouldn't take kindly to such intrusion... I once DESPERATELY wanted to ask a bearded man reading a copy of Plato (I think) which had a cover with a bearded man on it, if I could take his photo for my blog, but I bottled it.