When people talk about books, they often characterize either the genre (science fiction, romance) or the feeling the author strives to impart (a thriller is, presumably, thrilling). But there are, to my knowledge, only a handful of geographically specific kinds of reads. There’s the “beach read,” a phrase we all hear often come every summer season. There’s the notoriously disposable “airplane read.” And for getaways in the woods, you’ve got the “cottage” or “cabin read.” And that’s about it.
Nearly all of these designations are pejorative. The designation of a “beach read” suggests a book that’s frothy and engrossing, but ultimately ephemeral — one that you can sink into as you slump in a folding chair in the sand, but you won’t miss too much if you forget it at the hotel. The term “airplane read” is even more of a dismissal, the idea being a book you can breeze through in the time span of an average flight, and then discard. (The one and only Mack Bolan adventure novel I’ve ever read was one I discovered in a seatback on a puddle-jumper from Toronto to Harrisburg, Pa.) The “cabin read” has a bit more prestige: It implies the kind of pleasurable literary project you lug on an isolated retreat and tackle over an uninterrupted week or two.
To my mind, this list is missing one important geographical location: the subway. Lots of people read on the go, of course; there are entire websites devoted to capturing commuters and the books they’re reading underground. As a New Yorker, I’m on the train all the time, my nose constantly buried in a book. But what makes for a perfect “subway read”?
The first time I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was on subways and busses in New York. There’s no need to dumb down “subway reading.”