Wednesday, August 22, 2007

La Recherche du Temps du Commute + 75% Have Read 1 Book Last Year + Summer Soundtrack

Today as I was on the New Jersey light rail, which I take to the PATH, which I take to the subway (MTA), to get to the spot where I've spent a huge portion of this summer, the New York Public Library (see photo at right), I was musing that if I won the lottery (Mega Millions is up to $201 million as of last night) and could underwrite research by some of the brilliant people and their colleagues I used to work for and with at MIT, and if scientific understanding of the laws of physics were to dramatically advance, one of the things I'd urge them to develop or invent would be a machine or process to allow me and others to recapture time lost as adult in commuting. (Pace Proust, but memories of childhood and adolescence will suffice.)

I roughly calculated that I've spent about 1/4th (or more of non-sleeping hours) of my adult life commuting to school or work--and this percentage will again rise in just under a month, when classes resume and I return to Chicago and Evanston. In fact the only times over that last four decades that I've lived close (which is to say, a walkable trip under 15 minutes) to work or school was during 5th and 6th grade years, when I walked to the nearby Catholic school, and during my four undergraduate college years. Before that, meaning all through most of my preschool through high school years, and after that, like a sizable number of people, I've spent a huge portion of my waking life in cars or on trains, buses and airplanes. Sic transeo ego. (Is that right? It's been a long time!)

One of the things I've always tried to do is maximize this transit time. At one time I was attempting to balance reading with writing; one of the results during my years on the Boston T was a long prose poem, "Transits." In Charlottesville, it was all car all the time, which is when I first started to listen to poetry cassettes that I was convinced no one else ever withdrew from the library. But after moving back north and several years of trying to take notes and write anything beyond snippets of poetry lines on the bumpy PATH and MTA trains, I turned primarily to reading, which is also a lot easier to accomplish if you have to deal with long station waits, switching trains and abrupt stops. I also learned that it's easier to read poetry on short-ish train rides and bus trips than critical or fiction texts, especially if the latter are even mildly engrossing--I have missed more than a few stops on the Chicago and New York subways buried in a novel--and easier to read books of poetry full of discrete, short poems rather than long poems or a poetic series, which you can completely lose the thread of if you have to abruptly break off and cross over from one line to another.

One significant change since 2001 is that during the school year my main reading consists of student work, so during the period that I rode the trains to and buses from Rhode Island and since I've been out in Chicago, I mainly read student stories and papers, which there are always a great many of, on the long commutes; the thorough readings they require are perfectly suited to the delays at O'Horror and Slowwork. As far as car commuting, which I do daily in Chicago, I once mainly popped in CDs, but after losing and misplacing many of them and then acclimating to mp3 technology, now tend to listen to the radio (i.e. NPR, sports radio, or the R&B stations), or my iPod linked to the radio via wireless.

Still, I'd love to get even a few of those hours back. Say just the ones lost in the airport when, after checking in online, viewing the Mac flight widget and the airline's webpages, and studying the departure boards once I arrive in the terminal and then near the gate, all confirming that my flight is on time, I reach the departure gate and learn that unfortunately, the flight will be delayed by a half hour two hours three hours an unknown amount of time because _________ (add excuse of choice, but if all else fails, say "wind"). The recaptured hours from 2001-2007 would add up, I imagine, at least to a summer. Not a lot of time, but I wouldn't complain.


This brings me to the AP report, based on an AP-Ipsos Poll, that I've seen circulating around the web (Reggie H. sent it to the CC list, but it was also on Huffington Post, Raw Story, Yahoo!, and other sites), which noted that at least one fourth of Americans did not read a single book last year.

This news may startle some folks, but I've posted before about and even incorporated into curricular materials the 2004 NEA Report Reading at Risk, which noted that fewer than half of the people surveyed had read a literary work in the preceding year, so I was not surprised at all. In fact, I almost wanted to cheer that according to this new poll, around 75% or so of those polled did read a book last year.

Oprah's Book Club
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison with Oprah Winfrey (from Academy of Achievement)

I also wasn't surprised that the most-read texts (cited by 2/3rds of those who did read a book) were the Bible and other religious tracts (I'm guessing the Book of Mormon, the Qu'ran, etc.). Nevertheless, people who did not attend religious services were more likely to read than those who did. Westerners and Midwesterners were more likely to read than people from other regions, but Southerners were more likely to read religious texts and romances than any other. And the Northeasterners? Fuggedaboudit! Democrats and liberals read a few more books than Republicans and conservatives, and the median number of books read by women was nine, with five for men.

Other points in the report that I think should be discussed in all undergraduate writing and graduate MFA classes include the findings that women read more fiction, and every other category except history and biography, than men (take note, writers!), who prefer non-fiction, when they (we) do read; people older than 50 read more than the young'uns (apparent to anyone who spends time in a classroom); and popular fiction is, well, more popular than literary fiction. (But we already knew this, didn't we?)

Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre — including politics, poetry and classical literature — were named by fewer than five percent of readers

Another sad note: considerably people read poetry, a most unfortunate fact. (Though quite a few people listen to it when it's set to music and called hiphop or rock music, but that's another story.) The Poetry Foundation explored this issue last year, and I wrote a little about that too; somewhat converse to this report, Black people were more likely to read poetry than White people, though this poll notes that Blacks and Latinos were less likely to have read any book than White folks.

But back to the report. A quote:

"I just get sleepy when I read," said Richard Bustos of Dallas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.

Obviously this man 1) is unaware that you can read and sit in or near a pool and 2) has not cracked open any of a number of anti-soporific works, such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a relentlessly propulsive stunner (and Pulitzer Prize-winning Oprah's Book Club Pick as well) which has sections (not including the vapid, easy ending) that might you nightmares that not even Halcyon or Sominex could trump.


Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.

This isn't surprising; reading is a skill and a love of reading requires acculturation, particular nowadays, and our educational system, both public and private, does the pursuit of reading few favors. The NEA report noted that the most important factor in "literary" reading was education, with another key factor being income. The more highly educated and wealthier people were, the more they were likely to read, and that appears to be the case in this poll as well.

It also made me think that the publishing industry continues to harm itself with the high cost of even discounted hardcovers. They remain too expensive--for the price of three hardcovers, you can pay for a month of cable TV, or a game for your XBox or Wii. As much as I love books, I swore off of purchasing new ones for several years because I simply could not afford them.

As I noted, the poll's news can be viewed as positive and yet sobering, and offers a number of things for writers, educators, and readers to consider. Cultivating and developing readers long ago ceased to be a given, and it's up to those who care about reading, and its corollary effects, to ensure that we create new generations of readers--avid ones, if possible.


Rereading Brazilian writer Jean Wyllys's story "I Need a Soundtrack to Live," which I translated earlier this year, reminds me that I haven't posted a list of the music I've been listening to in a while, but here's ten (+) songs that're part of my current rotation. (I've finally learned to shed my embarrassment about falling for songs that I first heard in commercials. I do want to figure out how to rid myself of the earworm better known as Swizz Beatz's "Money in the Bank"!)

Alice Smith - "Love Endeavor"
Bebel Gilberto - "Azul" and "Night and Day"
Bloc Party - "Like Eating Glass"
Brazilian Girls - "Jique"
Common - "The People" and "Black Maybe"
Gym Class Heroes - "Viva La White Girl"
Manole - "Vuelo Alto"
Max Roach and Anthony Braxton - "Magic and Music"
Mellowdrone - "Beautiful Day"
Pharoahe Monche - "Desire"


  1. Oh, so you have read The Road now? I see your opinion of it squares with mine (oh, that ending!! What was he thinking?)

    Yesterday I saw an astonishing sight: a handsome young man reading and energetically jotting notes into a journal. There was eye contact, smiles, etc., and I became unreasonably hopeful. But, of course, he was only a Christian, and reading the Book of Mormon, which he attempted to pass off to me ("It's free. Read it!") I wonder how many gay nerds go through this--it's not the first time for me.

    I once lived on the Upper Westside and commuted to work near Union Square. Going through Time Square every morning to change trains, and finally arriving at the school, traumatized by the crowds, I was well primed to passionately envy a colleague who moved within three blocks of the school and could roll out of bed 15 minutes before teaching his first class. He claimed (believeably) that the move had "added years to his life"--it didn't occur to me at the time that he might have meant that literally. For me, it's not so much the commuting (as you point out, one can use the time productively): it's the elbows, the jostling, the teenagers bellowing into cell phones, the anxiety of delays and late arrivals ...

    Kai in NYC

  2. Kai, I did finish The Road, and thought it McCarthy's most reader-friendly book and one of his most moving. It is also his most transparently moral text, though the ending seems to force the issue in a way that wasn't necessary or earned. But then again, this has been his best seller too, so perhaps he decided it was necessary to take the final step. I really wished he hadn't, though.

    Your anecdote is funny. I often see folks in cafés taking notes, intensely reading--well, some cafés. In most people are tapping away on computers. Perhaps the one I'm thinking most of has no wireless, so you have to be writing or editing something rather than websurfing if your laptop is open.

    You're also right about the additional hassles of crowds, noise, etc. The bustle doesn't bother me so much; I still find it thrilling. When I commuted to Providence I'd take Amtrak, and Penn Station ALWAYS was a bit of mess, especially after 9/11, which was supposed to be my first day of classes! I used to love to change trains at the World Trade Center, but I cannot get the feeling of it being a tomb out of my head. I usually try to rush through there as quickly as possible. The worst by far is O'Hare Airport, which is always crowded, has long lines, requires you to dodge those passenger assistance carts, and constantly blares with semi-audible announcements about delayed flights. It's giving me chills just thinking about it now.