Southern Books

“I take a look at Hester’s book, still closed on her finger. A good way to size up people.” – Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (1971)

To have an idea of what people are thinking about, I pay attention to the books they read while riding mass transit. Such an exercise of indiscreet voyeurism, however, is not as easy as it sounds. When you ride public transportation (at least in Atlanta), it’s better to keep your eyes and your business to yourself to avoid trouble, though I have rarely seen an instance of rudeness during my commutes. Nevertheless, staring at someone could be misconstrued as being judgmental or getting into someone’s space. Discretion is paramount.

For the past year, I have been taking MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority ) to work daily from Decatur to Midtown Atlanta—a thirty-minute train ride sandwiched between two ten-minute walks. As a novelty (and as a source of fresh material for my blog about the reading life) I often note what people are reading. Every five or six weeks, I share my findings on a posting called “The MARTA Book Club.” There is nothing systematic or statistical about this and I limit my notations to books only. The reading of newspapers, the backs of Georgia lottery tickets, Ikea catalogs, and cereal boxes do not count. And since Kindles and other electronic reading devices make it impossible to determine what someone is reading, I do not document that reading either. So, my research is purely anecdotal.

Book covers also play a role in data gathering. It is much easier to log Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals—a cover with large spray paint lettering— than one of the titles from the Stephenie Meyer Twilight series, for example. Often I find myself catching just part of a title or an author’s name and then jotting down a note on my index card until I can search for the complete author and title online. But even then, I second-guess myself. Was it Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror or was it Malkin’s Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies that I observed one person reading?

What keeps my preoccupation with book spotting manageable is that most MARTA riders don’t read. On the morning and afternoon commutes, I’d estimate that maybe one or two in ten people read. Some others listen to music (or books?), slump into sleep, or study their smart phones as if they were oracles, but the majority just stare vacantly ahead – the familiar looks of dread and exhaustion that cloud our countenance as we go to and from work each day.

Though the average rush-hour MARTA rider-reader is just a working stiff often clad in their employer-issued Einstein Bagel, Cactus Car Wash or Aramark shirts reading tastes vary widely and one should not make assumptions. I’ve witnessed a large young man in work pants (you know, the kind of pants that has a strap for your hammer) reading Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and a spiritual-looking kid with acne and greasy hair holding Somerset Maugham’s 1944 book The Razor’s Edge. (Both young men were reading yellowed paperbacks, reinforcing one of the beauties of reading books – a low cost to entry). I’ve spotted business professionals reading some self-improvement drivel such as Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balance Hormones for a Hot, Healthy Body or Secrets of Power Negotiating. Self-improvement and spiritual enlightenment are popular titles on the train and almost every day you see someone reading the Bible, whose short chapter structure and mix of narrative and philosophy does seem ideal for reading in transit. Rarely seen are books from the list of Books That Georgians Read or The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s Top Ten Books of the year. This indicates that the average reader cares little what the gatekeepers of literary taste have to say. Once in a while you can spot a copy of a Top Ten title like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help being read by a traveler coming from the airport, but the reading choices of MARTA natives are more eclectic and less predictable. Discretely spying, I’ve been introduced to writers that I’ve never heard of before. Not that I have read them yet, but exposure is the first step.

In addition to looking at titles, I like watching (more like furtively glancing) those who experience the pleasure of reading. One of my favorite examples was a middle-aged guy who looked like Danny Glover—if Danny Glover were a little on the short side. It was the afternoon commute, and the man had just gotten off work. He was spread out horizontally with his work boots covering the adjacent seat and was munching on a big bag of chips and totally absorbed in his thick, hardback bestseller. Work was over and he was relaxing completely. Similarly, there have been several women who are immersed in romance novels with steamy, purple covers (such as Lover Man or Double Pleasure, Double Pain) that commonly feature men with glistening, bare torsos about to get it on with voluptuous, red-lipped beauties. These women are somewhere, but not on the train.

Similarly, I wonder if people take note of what I read. At the risk of sounding more egocentric, I assume people sneak peeks at what I am reading and therefore I am particular of what I take on the train. Am I reading something that is representative of who I think I am? When I brought my tattered copy of Love in the Ruins on the train, how did that play? Was it interpreted as a steamy love story, sans a purple cover? Did a Kindle reader on the way to the airport notice my disintegrating cover and stereotype me as being one of those desperate people who have limited or no transportation alternatives to get to work. Or (my preferred choice) did another discriminating reader appreciate my personal re-assessment of Percy’s stature in Southern letters. Moreover, what happens when I chuckle aloud at one of Percy’s observations? If someone moves over a seat after I laugh, well, I guess that means other people are watching.

Book spotting fits into the larger narrative structure of the morning commute as each commuter is part of everyone else’s story. Most of the time we are silent extras like those in a movie, but once in a while there is a performance that commands our attention: the woman who played the drums on her leg (just drumsticks and thighs, no skins), the fellow who sat next to me and pulled out Tuen Voeten’s Tunnel People or the man who sold boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts during the morning commute that in his words, “are so fresh, you don’t need any teeth to eat them.” For those who like stories, it is these short anecdotes, along with our reading reveries, that ease the daily grind.

This is important as commuting has become more inconvenient in Atlanta since MARTA implemented service cuts that began last year. The recent cutbacks have translated into longer waits for trains and buses, which means more time for reading, but space on the concrete benches is limited and the slabs themselves are uncomfortable. There are fewer trains and they are more crowded. For me, grasping a book in one hand and holding on to a pole for balance with the other, restricts my selection of books (no thick hardbacks).

After voicing my concerns at a public hearing and sending token emails to policymakers, there is little I can do about the budget cutbacks. Thus, I return to my fail-safe position–rejoining my fellow readers and disappearing into the pleasures of public transportation: reading and being part of the book spotting saga.

Murray Browne

Murray Browne

Murray Browne lives in metro Atlanta and is author of two books, Down & Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire (2016) and The Book Shopper: A Life in Review (2009) Both are available on Amazon. He maintains a blog at A link to the Down & Outbound book trailer video is