Seen on the Bus


Before she ended her blog Bookish NYC, I used to love reading Karen’s weekly post about the books she saw people reading on the subway that week. I have often contemplated doing something similar on my blog, but I know I wouldn’t be as good as Karen was at describing the people who were reading the books.

And then part of me didn’t want to do it here in DC because it seemed that most folks on the Metro here read either non-fiction, bibles/daily devotional books, or news periodicals. Non of which I find interesting enough to blog about.

But, since moving to our new neighborhood, I have been surprised to see people on my local bus to the Metro reading lots of interesting fiction. No “Girl with the Whatever” books, no vampire books. Instead I have seen things like Anita Brookner and Elizabeth Bowen and even a Barbara Pym. And sure, there are still plenty of people reading the previously mentioned stuff I don’t feel like blogging about. But given the rather wonky make up of my new neighborhood (25% have bachelor’s degrees and an additional 36% have graduate degrees) rather than the de rigeuer copies of The New Yorker or The Economist that are everywhere in DC, you see things like Meteoritics and Planetary Science. And, although it may be non-fiction I saw a young woman reading Mad World, the story of Evelyn Waugh and the writing of Brideshead Revisited.

I still don’t plan to follow in Karen’s footsteps, but on Monday on the morning bus I couldn’t help but note the following:

Trim, tidy, forty-something gentleman with briefcase reading Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. If MT is anything like Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, I wouldn’t exactly call it light reading.

Casual thirty-something guy who looks like he has young kids and who usually has an e-reader had a wonderful. slightly ratty old Penguin Classics edition of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.

And then there was me with my copy of Heinrich Boll’s End of a Mission.

20 thoughts on “Seen on the Bus

  1. Carol February 10, 2011 / 8:21 am

    I loved Karen's Seen on the Subway posts. I think you could write weekly postings of the same for D.C. that would be just as interesting. I would definitely look forward to reading it!


  2. Darlene February 10, 2011 / 9:20 am

    Fun post! Makes me wonder how many friendships, or even relationships, have been formed with book banter as the catalyst while taking transit.


  3. Susan in TX February 10, 2011 / 10:19 am

    I, too, loved those posts of Karen. They nearly always had me lol. Would love to see from your perspective what people on your commute are reading.


  4. Karenlibrarian February 10, 2011 / 10:28 am

    I miss Bookish NYC! Seen on the Subway was great. Mass transit is nearly nonexistent here in S. Texas but I always check out what people are reading at the airport, etc. (I have been known to accost complete strangers and ask what they're reading — my excuse is that I'm a librarian and it's my job, which is a slight exaggeration as I'm unemployed). If I lived someplace with a decent transit system I would definitely borrow this idea.


  5. Jeane February 10, 2011 / 11:15 am

    I used to sneak peaks at the covers of books other passengers were reading on the bus, and then look for them at my own library if they were interesting!


  6. Mystica February 10, 2011 / 11:54 am

    I too loved the seen on the subway. Her posts were very descriptive! I am also guilty of always looking at the covers to see whether its something new/interesting!


  7. motheretc February 10, 2011 / 2:32 pm

    I'm always trying to sneak a peek at what other people are reading while in transit. It can be a really tough job though!


  8. Paperback Reader February 10, 2011 / 3:29 pm

    I also loved that feature!

    Tonight on the bus there was sitting beside me a pregnant woman (of similar ages with myself) reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Good taste, fellow bus passenger, good taste.


  9. StuckInABook February 10, 2011 / 7:54 pm


    And how cool that people read the Bible or devotionals on public transport – you'd never see that in England. Well, you would if you sat opposite me sometimes, but I always feel a bit self-conscious doing it, like somoene's going to hit me or something.


  10. Ash February 10, 2011 / 9:02 pm

    I think this would be a really neat feature if you ever decided to pursue it. And it makes you wonder what that thirty-something guy is usually reading on his ereader.


  11. Ted February 10, 2011 / 9:13 pm

    Lovely post, Tom. I love to book gawk too, whether on public transport or when I arrive at new people's homes – I always have to check out the book shelves.


  12. Nan February 11, 2011 / 11:46 am

    Thank you, thank you for continuing Karen's column. I love reading this stuff. Living out in the country where we all use cars, I never see anyone reading. :<) I loved 'your' people this week, and look forward to more. Thanks again, Thomas! Great job.


  13. Thomas at My Porch February 11, 2011 / 12:32 pm

    Carol: I miss Karen.

    Darlene: Most people I try to banter with are somewhat annoyed for having their reading time interrupted. Although I do try to only make comments when the book is somewhat off the beaten path and one that I love. Like Pym or Brookner. You never see anyone in public reading those.

    Susan: Her postings were succinct and always entertaining.

    Karen: I tend to not ask people what they are reading because most times I am disappointed with their choice and then don't know what to say.

    Jeane: Karen tended to do a little online research on the titles she didn't recognize.

    Mystica: She was good at it.

    Mother: It can be very tough to see covers sometime without looking like a freak.

    Claire: See, a Wilkie Collins right next to me, I would have been compelled to chat with her about that one.

    Simon: DC is on the edge of the Bible belt so one tends to see a lot of it. My favorite is when they have so many passages highlighted in their Bibles that the entire page is yellow and pink with nary a word left un-highlighted.

    Ash: I know e-readers pose a challenge to this kind of activity. The one time I tried to glimpse what the 60-something woman next to me was reading I ended up reading something rather obscene. And she had the type set to a very large size, so it was hard to miss.

    Ted: Oh, home libraries always get the once over from me. Back when I was dating I used to use the bookshelf test as a way of determing the future of the relationship.

    Nan: I have been resisting adding this as a regular feature, but your comment has pushed me over the edge. I am not sure what form it will take, but I think I am going to give it a go.


  14. madbibliophile February 12, 2011 / 10:00 am

    I love these sort of posts. It might be just my strangeness but i find people somewhat more beautiful and lovely when they're reading a book. They get this look on their faces that can't be faked.

    Not sure if you're aware of this blog but she documents and photographs people reading too although it's updated irregularly:


  15. music-books-steve February 12, 2011 / 10:03 am

    When I took the train to work in downtown Minneapolis, I was often surprised by the sophistication and seriousness of what people were reading. I don't think it was just the fact that the train services the University. It gave one hope that America might survive the current wave of Republican anti-intellectualism after all (though I doubt it).


  16. Biblibio February 12, 2011 / 1:30 pm

    This is my favorite public transportation game ever, unfortunately I never spot anything really good


  17. agoodstoppingpoint February 13, 2011 / 1:12 am

    I've been taking the Metro more often lately, and the thought has crossed my mind to try and observe what others are reading. Maybe I'll keep an eye out next week when I go.

    As for my own reading on the Metro, I have been disappointed to find that I can't read for long before feeling slightly nauseated, especially on my morning commute. I keep trying though as some days are better than others.

    – Christy


  18. Thomas at My Porch February 14, 2011 / 9:57 am

    Mad: I certainly find them more interesting that is for sure. Unless of course I get all elitist and look down on their choice of reading material.

    Steve: As I allude to in the post, reading material seen here in DC can be a little too serious, too related to the readers' professional life. I always want to hand out fiction.

    Biblio: In preparation for posting about this on a regular basis I kept my eye out this morning but came up empty. It will be intersting to see how long it takes me to gather up more material.

    Kim: Although it is kind of fun, it also kind of feels like work.

    Christy: I also get a little queasy on the AM commute. And some lines are worse than others. I used to be on a straight line (Green) and never felt ill. But the Red line has a lot more curves and I definitely feel it from time to time. For me empty stomach, too much heat and sometimes peoples colognes etc. are what help do me in.


  19. chasingbawa February 15, 2011 / 7:30 pm

    I loved Karen's posts too. It's almost as good as sneaking a good look at other people's bookshelves. I'm constantly checking out what other people are reading on the tube, although most of the time it's free newspapers but occasionally you get books!


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