Reading on public transport is a unique joy and an especial boon. In an average week, I will read at my desk, in my bed, recumbent on a sofa, and while walking in the street; a skill I’ve honed over the years, much to the concern of my colleagues. I can’t abide the dead time between appointments, when you’re assailed by ephemera and advertising, jostled by products and spurious bargains. If I’m walking (or ambling, or meandering or playing the flaneur) that’s exactly what I like to do, but if I’m just going between two places I would rather be reading a book. As long as you usually use pelican crossings and listen carefully, it’s perfectly safe, and moreover, since your eyes are cast downwards, there is less chance of stepping in the panoply of dog mess, vomit and discarded kebab that cobbles Edinburgh’s streets.
Street-reading notwithstanding, the engagement with books is a sedate and static activity. Reading on trains, buses and planes combines the blissful indolence of just sitting with the passive state of being moved, and all the while being mentally transported. Reading on a train seems to me very close to being like God: not the unmoved mover, but the unmoving moved.
It has less metaphysical advantages as well. Ensconced behind a book, you create a nimbus of privacy, a carapace against the nosy, the noisy, the garrulous and the alcoholically or chemically loquacious. Sometimes, the press of busy humanity makes the leap into print all the more welcome: on a No. 7 recently, I was surrounded by the following conversations. A young man was loudly informing his mother by mobile telephone that he probably would not be going to prison since he had admitted his multiple misdemeanours. Another young man, after a long anecdote about twatting some twat, shouted “I’ll call you later when I’m drunk” to his companions. Kayleigh-Marie would not stop crying, and was about to get a leathering if she didn’t stop crying, a rather paradoxical and, I’d venture, self-defeating course of action. There was a deal on at Lidl for gammon and Sambuca but the Sambuca was gone by 11 o’clock. They still, fortunately, had gluhwein. The opportunity to dislocate from that reality into another was a godsend. I can’t remember if it was Michael Chabon, William Fiennes, Denise Mina, Migeul Syjuco or Bill Drummond’s world I switched into; but to whomever, for this relief much thanks.
There is a strange, silent communion between passengers who are reading. It takes a formidable moral forbearance on my part not to disturb their enraptured elsewhereness with my own critical intervention. It is a terrible temptation not to mention, casually, to the chap reading, say, a new hardback of Salman Rushdie that he’ll probably be slightly disappointed and left with an aftertaste of self-indulgence, and that he’d probably far prefer Junot Diaz. There’s that peculiar flicker of pride when I see someone reading a paperback which has a jacket endorsement taken from my review: but in each case, the sanctity of their seclusion ought to be upheld. Even if they’re reading a Harry Potter novel.
Margaret Thatcher, in one of her more strident moment, once defined failure as a man in his thirties using public transport. If that is the case, then I embrace my failure wholeheartedly. On the bus I can be both productive and democratic, whereas the car driver is trapped in a solitary purgatory of their own choosing. When the four walls of the office or home seem unbearably familiar, I can light out on an all day ticket with a couple of books for four hours between Fairmilehead and Ocean Terminal, at once in the world and out of it, surrounded by the living and by the dead. Though which might be which is probably the text for a different sermon.