Taking a reading of his fellow travelers

by Robert Schmuhl

Call me, if you wish, a voyeur. For as long as I can remember, I’ve engaged in the bookworm’s version of a busman’s holiday. Wandering hither and yon, I always make a point of interrupting my own reading for furtive perusal of whatever’s occupying the eyeballs of fellow travelers and those around me.p. Some people, I suspect, might judge this nomadic avocation akin to an invasion of privacy. Yet in entering a plea of nolo contendere, I’d argue that this experiment in participation and observation provides not only guilty pleasures of a venial sort but also larger lessons about a country’s culture.p. On a recent trip to Paris, for instance, the Metro proved to be a movable feast for a reader-watcher. Besides the predictable riffling through newspapers and the ever-popular policiers (or detective novels), I saw three people absorbed in French translations of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, one sitting back with a volume of Lorca’s poems and another oblivious to all as he read Kierkegaard’s “Le Journal du Seducteur” (“Diary of a Seducer”).p. It’s chancy to generalize, but those rides and rubbernecking in cafes near Left Bank book shops (with folks reading, among other writers, Milan Kundera, Baudelaire, even Tocqueville) reflected the opposite of a best-seller mentality. Individuals were following singular concerns with refreshing seriousness and, shall we say, Old World sophistication.p. Here at home, a wanderer tends to see consumers of current events poring over newspapers or magazines; business-minded executives of both sexes mastering work-related publications or yet another of those half-horse-sense, half-horse-manure guides to leadership; students wielding yellow markers in their textbooks; men and women keeping up with the latest John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark; and (increasingly) souls seeking spiritual or inspirational sustenance from the printed page. Incongruously, perhaps, you rarely discover travelers engrossed in first-rate travel writing by, say, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson.p. In my unscientific study, popular fiction seems our most popular choice. As flight delays become de rigueur in American travel, the longer the book often means the longer the flyer’s fuse. A popular author’s potboiler can help a reader escape the boiling point of tedium to find a world of adventure, romance — or at least bearable diversion.p. Interestingly, for all the talk about electronic books and the hand-held gizmos for reading them that store up to a dozen titles, you see relatively few travelers using them. I did spy a woman at O’Hare International Airport with one the other day, but during an eternity of waiting there, it’s possible to witness almost anything.p. A long O’Hare layover can become an intellectual adventure in itself. An academic colleague — with powers of concentration I envy and an absent-mindedness I don’t - became so engrossed in Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” that his much-delayed flight ended up departing without him. By the time he got home (to a none-too-happy wife, he reported), most of the book’s 800 pages were marked with comments and quarrels.p. Reading of such seriousness might be foreign to most roaming, but I know several people who relish extended trips by themselves, primarily for the sake of catching up on new books and other publications. Emerson might have famously viewed 19th Century travel as “a fool’s paradise,” but today it serves as a reader’s refuge, removed from quotidian demands and distractions.p. Which is one reason my until-now-secret hobby holds a curious fascination. Taking a crowded subway in Washington a few months ago, I stood next to a young man who was holding a book with one hand and a safety pole with the other. His sly, mischievous, half smile immediately piqued my interest. An unobtrusive step for a closer look at the object of his attention revealed all: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”p. A few weeks later, during a sojourn in Dublin, I went to the taxi rank at St. Stephen’s Green to catch a cab. The driver in position to take the next fare didn’t look up until I tapped on his window, and even then he seemed somewhat perturbed. He was reading a book, with several spread out on the seat next to him.p. As I happily switched from watcher to listener, my ride to meetings at University College Dublin became a traffic-snarled tutorial in Irish literature, with passing references to British and American authors. From this uncommon common reader ("I’d say I’ve got seven or eight-thousand books at home") I learned much, including that Seamus Heaney’s new collection of poetry, “Electric Light,” was already a top-seller throughout the country and that Heaney, a Nobel laureate in literature, is so well-known in his native Ireland it’s difficult for him to go anywhere without attracting an adoring crowd.p. En route, he also spoke passionately about Joyce, Yeats, Flann O’Brien and John McGahern — not to mention Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, his favorite American writers. I’ve never regretted the end of a cab ride until that one.p. Leaving Dublin on a flight to London, I glanced across the aisle and two unoccupied seats to check what a stoutish, ample-chinned woman in the afternoon of her years was reading. It was a magazine article whose title posed an age-old question: “Do You Need Some Sexual Energy?” She didn’t turn the page for a long time.p. Reading readers as they travel might make me an economy class Peeping Tom in need of counseling, a support group or both. Denial notwithstanding, I see the practice as somewhat less risky — and even more rewarding — than the one advocated by Oscar Wilde. “I never travel without my diary,” the scandalous wit once wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

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