From Seen Reading:
I’m a literary voyeur. Like the wanderer who steps off the predictable path, I set out most days in the hope that I’ll encounter a new way of seeing the spaces in which I live. I’m also a collector. Years ago, I began to collect sightings of readers, because I thought I might gain awareness of how our urban lives are mapped out in the books we choose to read in public, particularly on transit. Many people, for instance, read on transit to place a wall between themselves and fellow passengers; others don’t know how to be alone in a crowd. For the rest of us, that commute is the only time we get to retreat into an extended private conversation with ourselves as we dive into another’s world.
A question began to persist: If I’m a voyeur, are you, the reader, an exhibitionist? How do readers perform the private act of reading within the public realm, their preference for the written word on full display. The book becomes an invitation to look closer. And, just think, you have no idea what emotions may floor you from one sentence to the next, and when they do, I’m there, watching. I began to imagine who each reader might be, and how the text they read would ultimately impact the spaces in which they live.
The reader sighting that started it all was at The Old Nick on Danforth Avenue. At the bar, a woman neared the end of a book. Visibly distraught, she placed the book down from time to time, only to pick it up again moments later. This continued for some time, until she stood suddenly, slapping her money on the bar as she readied to leave. She was so distressed, in fact, that I asked if she was all right, noting the title of the book before it disappeared into her bag. She said that this wasn’t the right time or place to end the book, that when it came time to say goodbye to the protagonist she’d need to be at home. After she left, I ran to the nearest bookstore where I purchased a copy of the book she’d been reading: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. I read it that night in anticipation of the final pages, where I would once again meet this reader within the book that moved her so.
I began to look for readers everywhere. You may be the woman I see who, each week, is deeper into yet another book. You may be the man whose weathered copies of science fiction novels betray multiple readings. It’s likely that the book you carry bears the splatter of last night’s dinner or the crumbs of this morning’s breakfast, the vague odour of your bed sheets or your partner’s cologne. Under my observation, the reader both reads and reveals a narrative, the act of reading in turn inspiring an act of writing.
My work is performed onToronto’s subways, streetcars, and buses. InToronto, transit riders are decidedly introverted. Courtesy aside — removing my knapsack so you can pass, standing up so you can sit, wearing fitted earphones so you don’t have to hear my music — fellow passengers enter into an unspoken agreement that it’s not rude to sit in silence, gesturing only in the rare instant that you’re sitting on my jacket, or I’m standing on your purse strap. Perhaps this is why readers feel safe to pull out a book, turning the average subway car into a cultural cocoon. With little effort, the average forty-five minute trip yields at least twenty reader sightings.
During downtownToronto rush hour, shoulder-to-shoulder I’m often able to note a book’s title and author, and most often the page number at the time of the sighting. Armed with this information and only a brief physical description of the reader, I craft a fictional response to the entire scene, endingeach sighting with a poetic short fiction about the reader and who he or she may be. The online blog Seen Reading — www.seenreading.com — is the forum in which I posted my reader sightings. To date, there are over seven hundred sightings, and the project earned me the moniker “Gossip Girl of the Book World” among my regular visitors. Early versions of some of the stories that appear here originated there.
The pieces are bite-sized, reflective of an age in which communications are disseminated through texts, tweets, and status updates. Twitter, for instance, places constraints on the user, one hundred and forty characters per tweet, to be exact. It’s taught us how to be mindful of our words. In a venue where every character counts, complete words and entire sentences take on a whole new meaning. How and why we place importance on each character, word, and sentence becomes a craft. What’s followed is an increase in the popularity in online microfiction, postcard fictions, poetic short fictions — whichever term you prefer. The economy of a tweet, by way of contrast, however, should not be mistaken for a creatively constrained art form. Take Ernest Hemingway’s infamous short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” When I read this the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a sentence that had been cut from one of his novels, or a rushed scribble on a napkin intended as the starting point for another. Mostly, though, I wondered if the first draft had been seven words. Or seventeen. Do we say more when we say less?
I’m far from alone in my impulse, the Seen Reading Movement alive in any person who has ever wanted to ask a complete stranger how he or she is liking a book as they rumble down the track together to their final destinations. While commuters may feel anonymous on public transit, the vehicles are structured in such a way that we face one another, always in the line of someone else’s view. Public transit situates us so that we are given license to accept what’s right in front of us, but will likely arouse our desire to compare our narrative to someone else’s, to give ourselves permission to speculate upon a person’s private space, or life, with no fear of recourse or punishment. Where did you come from? How did you get here? Where are you going?
After five years of watching readers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that as there is no one way to read a book, there is no one way to know a reader. To that end, I address each character only as He or She to invite many readings of the text.
Be seeing you.
In the train tunnel for five minutes, a young mother has let her child go to the front. Here he presses his face to the glass inside cupped hands, eyes adjusting to the dark, bobbing headlamps crossing in the distance, workers on the track. The mother reads while the woman beside her watches a telenovela on a portable player, Malhação or Patito Feo, she wouldn’t know.
The passengers get tense, the train showing no sign of moving. The banter from the soap opera is rapid-fire, the audio hollow and far away, like tiny people yelling inside a tin can. We are in a tin can, the mother thinks. What would our voices sound like from the next station? How much longer before we’ll break down and talk to one another? She looks over the forearm of the woman to see what drama is unfolding. Her son jumps unsteadily on one foot, hands stuffed into his back pockets.
Caucasian female, late 40s, with long blond hair, wearing leather pants, black fleece, and large gold necklace.
The World to Come, Dara Horn (W.W. Norton, 2006) p 10
After Joe Brainard
He remembers a bump to his forehead, the cat ten minutes before the alarm.
He remembers the police, thirty-one arrests, the deep voice on the clock radio sounding morning.
He remembers remembering, a surge in his stomach, reaching out for the cat. The cat is gone.
He remembers his bare toes touching the cold floor, how once it would be followed by a warm hand on the back of his neck.
He remembers the empty drawers, one less toothbrush, and the extra set of keys taking up space in his loose change bowl.
East Indian male, 40s, with shaved head, wearing black wool coat, collar up, and blue striped scarf.
I Remember, Joe Brainard (Granary Books, 2001) p 117
Breakfast was strawberry Pop Tarts. The boy and Uncle sat in the kitchen blowing on the filling, rolling the toasted pastry around in their mouths. Uncle threw his down on the paper towel, switching it out for coffee. The boy walked his fingers across the table and grabbed the leftover, holding it to his chest like he was planning to store it for the long season ahead. Uncle straightened to scold him, but the boy had started nipping away at the tart like a beast, revelling in his tiny victory.
He saw a glimpse of the boy’s mother in those mischievous eyes.
He recalled living on the beach when they were young. His mother had called it a vacation, a summer down by the lake, but they’d lost their home and Mother was ill. He’d gone out into the surf, far too far, his sister’s job to make sure he didn’t go astray, but he giggled, wading further. A succession of waves had come in and he struggled to stay above water, sucked under and spit out, over and again, scanning the shore each time he broke the surface.
She would come get him. His sister would come get him.
When he finally came ashore safe, his sister was standing by the tent, their mother inside, fading, her eyes as murky as the lake water. His sister would raise him.
Uncle caught himself glaring at the boy. Lord in heaven, he thought. Please don’t let the kid have it too.
Caucasian male, mid-40s, with wide part in greying hair, wearing worn leather motorcycle jacket, black jeans, and brown hiking boots.
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (PenguinCanada, 2006) p 56
Copyright © Julie Wilson, 2012