Elbows and Escapism: reading on the Tube

Though a Londoner, this is my first year as that most misanthropic of creatures, a London Commuter. I don’t experience the growing dread that non-Londoner friends widely report when descending the tunnels, but my failure to be miserable on the Tube is about more than birthright. As long as you have a book in your hand (and, more importantly, in your head), the whole world of disgruntled jostlers melts away. I’ve never deliberately boarded a Tube train without one.

I’ve always felt a special affinity for those who read books on the Tube, but since becoming a real grown-up in London I’ve joined a new club: those who want to read books on the Tube so much that they’ll do it in rush hour. I’ve mentioned before that the Kindle’s one-hand ease of use and light weight are among its greatest advantages, but some of us are still irrational enough to cling to the physical thing. This involves double-chinned reading as one’s wrist is pressed against one’s chest by the weight of people; sacrifice of bag-space in favour of holding-book-out space; and, for those standing, careful judgement of the best moment to let go of the rail and turn the page, in between lurches. Belonging to this club is hard work, and its self-centred, illogical values mark us as a distinct social group.

books on tube

Nor does this sense of community only exist in my head – readers on the platform migrate towards readers already on the train, hoping for a square-foot microcosm of the National Rail quiet carriage. I thought I was the only one who did this until I began observing fellow book-wielding commuters moving in front of my door on the platform on spotting me reading. Once this happens, a bizarre library effect is created. Aside from those hated Youths playing audibly loud music, the Tube represents one of very few 21st-century spaces in which humans sit together in silence. I’m aware that non-Londoners frequently experience this as a symbol of the capital’s collective unfriendliness, but I like to think of it as companionable. More than once, I’ve found myself whispering “Sorry” when stepping on someone’s foot in a tranquil carriage, and have often received the same treatment in return. It’s an environment where everyone is engaged in thoughtful, peaceful activity – browsing a paper, reading a book, listening to a podcast or simply thinking.

So for me, the Tube has always been a book place. Not all of that is positive, though. In recent years, all that reading I’ve done seems to be rubbing off, and I increasingly find myself prone to literary thoughts. Metaphors pop into my head as I observe things. Nowhere does this happen more frequently than on the Tube. I get out at Tottenham Court Road in the morning, after a deep escalator on which I never fail to reflect that we are mere insects rising from the bowels of the earth. I’m serious. The lines of people can also have a dystopian feel – the closest I’ve come to wondering if Orwell’s 1984 has arrived has been listening to the same, RP-accented announcements at thirty-second intervals, day in, day out. The state’s desire that I watch out for card clash is genuinely oppressive. This mentality is hard to describe to those who haven’t lived it without sounding melodramatic. It’s how we all start and end each day, and it produces this artistic witness in me because it makes me feel like a piece of art – like something moulded over time.


You can see that the daily experience of double rush hour has focused and crystallised my perception of the Tube, and this applies to my affectionate watching of other Tube readers. I wanted to know if this strange underground society could tell me something about our reading society as a whole. I decided to record, as far as I could, what everyone else was reading – sometimes with the unsettling thought that someone else, standing just across from me and likewise commuting to a Bloomsbury publishing house, might be doing exactly the same thing, typing my book title into their phone as I typed theirs. This started back in October, paused following Christmas (when people were less likely to read books of their own choosing) and continued in February.

The scientific limitations of such a study are obvious and many: on some days, no one in my carriage was reading; on others, I could see that ten people were reading, but didn’t manage to catch a single title; even on those days when I gathered plenty of data, it may not have been reflective of reading habits across the whole train, let alone the whole country; I’m more likely to have noted titles I know (from a cover design, a half-glimpsed title, the author and the publisher); train-reading habits may not reflect overall book-buying habits (cookbooks are a huge market in the UK, but no one would take one on their commute); only in exceptional cases was I able to note what people were reading on their e-readers. Leaving all this aside for the sake of a blog post pretext, here’s what I found out.

1) Literary fiction

More people were reading so-called literary fiction than any other type of book, and one in three of these books was a (modern) classic. This is likely to do with the relative prices of ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ e-books and the reading profile of those who still prefer ‘p’ to ‘e’, rather than revealing the triumph of ‘serious’ fiction over crime, romance and so on. What it did reveal was how far our literary fiction choices are influenced – not to say dictated – by prizes. The 2015 Booker winner, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, topped the list of repeat instances, closely followed by the bookies’ favourite, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. After these, things became more interesting. The next highest number of people observed reading a single book was for Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (praises sung here), with her previous novel A Half of a Yellow Sun just behind. The other big showings were Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante. I was encouraged by this evidence that we’re willing to read about other cultures – though of the slightly lesser-known names, almost all were white British or American. Perhaps we designate our handful of anointed ‘cultural gateway’ authors and let the rest fall by the wayside; across all the categories of books, only 16 authors – of over 200 – wrote in languages other than English.

2) From page to screen

I saw some evidence that film adaptation had impacted people’s reading choices – a couple of copies of Room, of The Danish Girl and of High Rise (including an incident where, in violation of the above-discussed intimacy of Tube readers, I had to move further down the platform to avoid standing next to someone reading the exact same copy as me). By contrast, TV didn’t seem to be having such a huge impact – I saw both The Night Manager and The Man in the High Castle, but John Le Carré and Philip K. Dick are too popular for anything to be inferred from a single copy observed. War and Peace, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen – possibly everyone was dutifully reading it on their Kindles, given the weight and expired copyright, but my understanding is that everyone over the age of 40 has a physical copy gathering dust on their shelf. The exception, of course, was George R.R. Martin, and that trend won’t be going anywhere, judging by the range of volumes -the latest, A Dance with Dragons, was the most popular, but I also noted more than one Clash of Kings (second in the series), and even one copy of A Game of Thrones. Since the series began in the ’90s, and everyone is reading the new (much more attractive) editions, it’s safe to say this is thanks to HBO.

3) Non-fiction

Perhaps my most surprising discovery was the popularity of different kinds of non-fiction. I felt, at the time, that I was seeing a lot more sport autobiographies than histories, but the numbers don’t lie. Biography and memoir, about everyone from musicians and writers to rugby coaches and whistleblowing social workers (Margaret Humphreys – I’d never heard of her but she sounds like a badass), were far more popular than celebrity tell-alls or retired footballers’ life stories. History wasn’t far behind, and the titles noted suggested strong reliance on the tables in Waterstones, clearly paid more attention than I’d assumed. I had also expected to see more evidence of the new surge in nature writing, but, though certainly a lot of it is being written well and critically acclaimed, the Tube showed no signs of a lot of it being bought and read. This is despite Waterstones giving heavy promotion to the paperback of John Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, which did exceptionally – and entirely unpredictably – well in hardback. Perhaps the nature fiends are not to be found on the Victoria Line at 9am.

Some suspicions about non-fiction trends were confirmed, though. The number of ‘Smart Thinking’, self-help and what Waterstones calls ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ books vastly outnumbered the politics and economics titles. I can’t help but find this depressing, in a year when we have an EU referendum, local elections, various global crises and Donald Trump. Personal prejudice comes in here – there are excellent Smart Thinking titles out there, which precisely encourage people to engage in social and political issues, but they drown in a sea of bilge. Beyond the astronomical popularity of Owen Jones (I even saw a hardback of The Establishment, though it’s been out in paperback since March 2015), readers appear above all intent on solving their inner turmoil. Publishers do schedule self-help and self-improvement titles to come out in time for New Year’s resolutions, but I suspect this is a year-round trend.

4) What is ‘commercial fiction’?

I’ve objected before to the tenuous and limiting distinctions drawn between genre fiction and literary fiction. I chose, with some difficulty, to note the categories of literary, SFF, graphic novels, YA, crime/thriller, historical fiction and then… commercial. So-called ‘women’s commercial fiction’ is generally thought of in publishing as a sub-category of commercial fiction, the industry’s respectful term for romance-based sagas and everything else written by a woman about familial and sexual relationships unfortunate enough to get dismissed as a romance-based saga.

Yet I realised, going through my data, that ‘women’s commercial fiction’ constituted absolutely everything in my ‘commercial fiction’ column. The only exception was Jeffrey Archer, who wrote poorly received political thrillers at a prodigious rate several decades ago. That sub-genre seems to have gone out of fashion, in favour of crime/mystery thrillers on the one hand, and the new ‘psychological’ thrillers (Gone Girl, etc) on the other. English-language crime fiction suffers no shortage of female authors, and they’ve dominated the tellingly labelled ‘domestic thriller’ market. So what, if anything, would be ‘men’s commercial fiction’? My failure to find an answer within my ‘research’ only strengthened my belief that labels have been created to marginalise certain types of narrative and author in the UK market. This question of gender is something I plan to discuss relatively soon.

When I began this ‘study’, I had no idea if it would give me anything to talk about. The above are the four points that stood out for me. Perhaps they haven’t told us anything we didn’t already know, but they might inspire future posts. James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books and current MD of Waterstones, told me that he judges a bookshop’s success by whether or not it attracts cabbies. His business has been built on keeping his ear to the ground, by interesting himself in what ordinary Londoners are reading, and I do feel that the Tube, a peculiar sardine tin of self-entertainers, can teach us something. After all, Books on the Underground has been running for far longer than hostels have had take-one-leave-one shelves. Poems on the Underground is one of the city’s most accessible free cultural programmes, reaching millions of readers a day and inspiring similar projects in San Francisco, Barcelona, Shanghai, St Petersburg and many other metropolises. For most commuters, it may be the only poetry they encounter in 2016. And I’ll continue to enjoy that little warmth of recognition as I note that one in 211 Tube readers with an anthology of Chinese poetry.


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1 Response to Elbows and Escapism: reading on the Tube

  1. Pingback: She-Readers: my month without men | mondays.are.read

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