Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Train

Continuing the Book Week theme...

The other night, while riding the subway, I sat across from a man and a woman. They were strangers to me and to each other.

The man was double-fisting electronic gadgets--a Blackberry in one hand and an iPod in the other--tapping and scrolling without cease.

The woman was reading a paperback novel--Wuthering Heights.

I read Wuthering Heights in high school.

Looking at the woman, I had some idea of what was in her head: shadowy moors, a damp Yorkshire manor, the thwarted passions of Heathcliff and Cathy. I felt connected to her in our semi-shared experience.

I remembered being 16 years old and what that felt like, when I learned the word "misanthropist" from an elderly, blue-haired teacher who repeated, again and again, "Heathcliff is what you call a real misanthropist." Later, I discovered that "misanthropist" is not a word, and that the proper word is "misanthrope." But either way, the meaning is the same: A general dislike for humanity, often originating in feelings of social alienation.

Which is what I felt when I looked at the man with the gadgets. He fingered and clicked, flicked his eyes back and forth, up and down. I felt anxious when I looked at the man. I felt disconnected and alienated.

Overhead, among the subway advertisements, a poster displayed the first sentence from Kafka's Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous bug."

Kafka's novella has often been said to be about dehumanizing alienation in the face of modernity, in the onslaught of new technologies ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.

So there it was, that opening line, on a subway car in 2009, over a pair of strangers--one with her mind in a Victorian novel printed on paper, the other with his brain ping-ponging between the two poles of a postmodern technological couple.

Today, maybe we all feel a bit buggy.


Mykola Dementiuk said...

Ah, the madness of immediate newness...Kafka was right, we all are destined to live in 'The Castle'.

EV Grieve said...

I have felt buggy far too long.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

Jeremiah, do calm down just a bit. I've worked in book publishing almost all of my adult life, every corner my apartment is stacked with books, and my library card is faint from overuse. I also have a Blackberry, an iPod, and a smart phone. And I'm considering a Kindle; by my lights, one complements the other. There are times in my life when I simply cannot carry/pack enough books, and there are far too many places in this country without an adequate bookstore. I get twitchy without a book at hand.
And Wuthering Heights is an overblown gothic soap opera.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

I don't know how that smartphone sneaked in, when I meant netbook.

Jeremiah Moss said...

yes, ctodd, very interesting. to extricate ourselves completely from the seductions, uses, and abuses of technology would require living in a cave somewhere.

obviously, i am not totally opposed to new technology. i daily consume and produce significant amounts of digital content.

how to maintain balance in this new world order? how do we stay conscious?

Barbara L. Hanson said...

Well, we try not to generalize, for starters. You stated on Monday that on-screen reading makes for shallow reading, or something of the sort. It might interest you to know that most editors, myself included, are expected to edit on screen. Rarely do I receive a stack of manuscript. (No waiting for messengers!) All else aside, it's greener. I don't think any book I have worked on has suffered by the process, either.

Anonymous said...

Last night, in that fog of commercials for The Stuff We Now Consider Essential, one of the APPS cited was one telling you where your nearest/favorite place to get pizza! Now that's a reason to stand in line for several days. To paraphrase, badly, what Blanche said to Stella: "Some things, like art, have progressed. What happened to humanity?"

Anonymous said...


The Withering Heights connection is only because you yourself have a familiarity with the text. Me, I never read it, have no interest. I would continue to be alienated from someone reading Wuthering Heights if I decided that I was shut out. The point is, meaning and interaction comes from where you find it.

Generally I'm with you, but your post comes off as a bit overly romantic.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've got to agree with my fellow publishing industry comrade Barbara.* I see your point, Jeremiah, but one can't always assess another person's inner life from what they're distracting themselves with on the subway. After a full day of checking copy, the last thing I want to do is read, so I tend to ride the train home staring dumbly into space. You'd probably think, "man, that chick is a serious bubblehead," but I swear that is not the case. ;)

And being on the front end of editorial production, I am grateful for every technological development that allows us to make books more efficiently, less expensively, and with less damage to the environment.

* Also seriously LOLing at "Wuthering Heights is an overblown gothic soap opera."

Cat Sitter in the City said...

I have been without a cell phone since September. I thought I would miss it, but I don't.

Anonymous said...

I once sat across from someone reading "Deep Throat." Yes, it was also a book. I really did not want to feel connected to her.

Anonymous said...

Whether you like Wuthering Heights or not - overblown gothic soap opera about describes it for me - or even reading text for that matter - you have to admit that much of the modern obsession with cell phones, electronic media in general, is damaging public space. Why just this morning I went into my local Brooklyn coffee shop to see two rows of people lined up in front of their laptops like electronic galley slaves. And no one talking, except on their cell phones.

I mean, this is fun? Social?


Jeremiah Moss said...

Deep Throat on the subway! love it.

and you can tell yourself a whole story about that person, who they are, what they value, why they'd read porn in public, etc. if they were reading Deep Throat on an iPhone, what story could you imagine? not much.

Ed said...

I thought this was a great post. Also the "cityofstrangers" comment summed it up.

Its better for people to be engaged with the physical environment they are in right now. Its more spontaneous, they can engage with other people in that environment (if only not to be rude and annoy them) and they can do things like keep to their side of the sidewalk.

Reading paper books on the subway is a much better form of escape than the electronic devices. Its easier to disengage from the paper book, plus the books don't emit sounds that annoy the other passengers.

I was given an ipod and have tried to use it on my commute, but since my commute is ridiculously crowded I found that I couldn't use it and navigate my way to the middle of the car, be on the alert for a seat opening up, check to see if I can get past the fat guy blocking the door at my stop, etc. New York just isn't a good city to try to wall yourself off in some portable holodeck when you are out in public. And really only in this city and London are people constantly using all of these electronic devices. People must really be unhappy here.

Anonymous said...

Imagine if they were WATCHING Deep Throat on an iPhone.

Lurking Girl said...

I adore nothing more than a good well-bound book, and I much prefer to read from paper than a screen, but since moving into 280 sq. ft. I've had to make compromises. One is based on the fact that only a bare fraction of the 47 boxes of books my ex and I jointly possessed could come with me. I'd rather put up with reading ebooks on my J Random Device than with losing access to all my old friends. I don't view this as a Lifestyle Choice What Isolates Me And Destroys The City.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post and the comment thread, hearing from editors, micro-apartment dwellers, and anti-romantics. I am not convinced that e-Readers are greener - surely a stack of books is more biodegradable than an e-Reader that must be replaced every couple of years? And the hardware and energy consumption associated with the production of electronic books (not to mention then entire web) is commonly overlooked when evaluating carbon footprints. Not to mention the inherent over-reliance on the power grid in order to feed the mind. I also enjoy the voyerism in knowing what the people around me are reading, and in what languages. - BN

Sreeraj said...

I liked your post.