You Are What You Read: Self-Help on the Train

I never understood how people could read on trains.

Seeing a crowded train car, people packed in like sardines, bumping into one another with their bags, and shoulders, and strollers…reading hardly seems like the appropriate or even, like a possible activity. And maybe it isn’t if you’re standing, wobbling about trying to keep yourself upright as the car lurks and jerks into stop after stop after stop; but once you’ve got an ever coveted seat, the world of books opens up to you.

I’ve converted, so to speak.

I love to read on the train. It makes the time fly by and a 45 minute commute out to see friends practically vanishes. Train delays, no problem. Traffic ahead, that’s aight. I’ll just be sitting here immersed in whatever I happen to be leafing through. Not to mention, reading on the train has helped me cross books of my ever-growing “to-read” list with ease. I don’t have a lot of “spare time” when I’m in school because there always seems to be a better use of that time than reading something that won’t be productive in any way. But on the train, I’m not going to bust out the PDF on architectural theory of the 20th century that my professor assigned. Instead, I reach for my hand-held kindle and let the glowing paper-esque screen take me away.

But something I noticed, before undergoing this transformation from bored observer to avid reader, is just what people are reading on the train. The Chortle  published a video back in April of 2016 where comedian Scott Rogowsky hits the NYC Subway with fake book covers that boast ridiculous titles. If you aren’t familiar with the clip, I’ve included it for your viewing pleasure:

***Part two is now available as well!***

Depending on the title, Scott gets anywhere from a little chuckle to an ugly glare and just about everything in between. Now, while I’ve never seen someone reading “How to Hold in a Fart” or “How to Find an Asian Girlfriend on the L Train” what his video highlights a truth of city-train travel. No matter how hard you try, in such a tight space, you are forced to look directly across the chasm at the other people on the train and cannot help but become a participant observer of Boasian sorts. We people watch and we try to make sense of the person holding the book and the type of book they are reading. And some titles may just share more about that person than you’d otherwise know.

The book seems to be the window to the soul in the Subway world.

When I see a sweatshirt wearing man with glasses and overgrown facial hair reading a book about video games, it makes sense. When I see a teenager reading some young-adult sci-fi/romance novel, it makes sense. And even when I see a business person, briefcase in tow, pull out a book on corporate finance, or the market, it makes sense too. The person you observe is seldom discordant to the book they are reading, which is how I believe Scott Rogowsky hits the funny bone just right.

We make snap observations that allow us to draw conclusions about the people we see. But we also associate our observations with the space we are sharing with the person we see.

Have you ever seen someone reading a romance novel at the beach? If so, both of you silently entered into a kind of contract, an understanding. They boldly read what is essentially soft romantic pornography in public and you are allowed to know they are doing so. You don’t say anything and neither do they. But you both know the discomfort that the other bears and you ignore it. I grew up in Southern California where countless women on vacation would arrive, beach chair, tanning oil, and romance novel in hand for a relaxing summer getaway. There is, in a sense, a time and a place for a romance novel -my guess is there’s really only two- 1. on your nightstand and 2. on a girls weekend beach getaway. Despite how uncomfortable it may make you to see some 45 year old mom of 3 reading about the uncontrollable ecstasy of a woman most-likely named after a gemstone or a flower, the book, the person reading the book, and the setting of reading that book seem to strike a harmony.

Alternatively, I have many friends who are pastors. Whenever they fly, seem to strike up a conversation with someone they are sitting near. Not because they are wearing clerical robes or any sort of official vestment but often because they are reading books like Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World by Brian McLaren. (A great book, you should definitely read. 10/10) People see what they’re reading and recognize that they, by reading that book in such a public way, are probably one who would like to engage in positive, uplifting, kind-hearted interfaith dialogue.

The books we read, in a way, advertise who we are to those around us and also reflect the setting in which we find ourselves.

So what about reading on the train? What does reading on the train say about you?

A lot, I think.

There are many different NYC Subway reader types as I have come to classify them. After all, I did spent quite a while on the train before I converted a train-reader myself. You’ve got your Oprah’s Bookclub/New York Times Best Seller crowd, then you’ve got the “I-need-to-read-it-before-the-movie-comes-out” peeps, the foreign title crew split equally between non-native English speakers and native English speakers trying to practice their second-tongue, the elusive and ever-growing e-reader types, and lastly, the self-help bunch. An interesting bunch to be sure.

What does it say about you if you are reading self-help on the train? I saw a girl the other day reading You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero and almost immediately, I purchased the book on my kindle for myself. And here’s why.

I looked across the car and I saw a young, twenty-something girl with thick gorgeous brown hair and wispy bangs. She had a heart shaped face that was beautifully made up and was wearing a hip assortment of accessories to complement her simple outfit of dark wash denim and light grey peacoat. Her purse occupied the seat next to her and she reached in, grabbed, opened and proceeded to confidently read a self-help book on the B Train. She appeared, to me, to be completely discordant to the book she was reading. This girl was beautiful and well dressed and cool and successful-looking, why would she have any reason to read such a book? Sure the cover of Sincero’s book is almost click-baity in nature, made to grab the eye with it’s yellow cover, whimsical typeface, and catchy title. But the reason why I bought the book too was because I admired this girl who was reading it.

It takes courage to admit you need help. In any context. In fact, I’m notoriously horrible at it. Ask any of my former employers or teammates, family or friends. Admitting when I am wrong and when I need the help of others is not my best trait. So seeing this girl who, to me, looked like she had it all together, sitting on the train, owning her vulnerability and weakness and putting it on display, turning to this book for guidance made me want to be a part of the self-help on the train crowd.

I’m reading Sincero’s book now, and just finished part one. I love the way she writes. It took me a little while to adjust to it. She writes with the brashness and good intentions of a close friend that is sitting you down to coffee to tell you to pull yourself together. And although I am an elusive e-reader type, not bearing my weakness to all those around me on the B Train, I confidently read through my own self consciousness on my commute. We have a lot to learn from readers on the train… for they have taught me to bear who I am honestly, for all to see, right there on the sleeve.


Photo Credit: Pham, Diane, Michelle Cohen, Ondel Hylton, Dana Schulz, Emily Nonko, and Metro New York. “NYC’s First Subway Line Moved Passengers Just One Block.” 6sqft. N.p., 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.


McLaren, Brian D. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World. New York: Jericho, 2013. Print.

Sincero, Jen. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. San Francisco: IDream, 2015. Print.

Taking Fake Book Covers on the Subway. By Scott Rogowsky. Perf. Scott Rogowsky. The Chortle, Apr. 2016. Web.

Fake Book Covers on the Subway PART TWO. By Scott Rogowsky. Perf. Scott Rogowsky and Akilah Hughes. El Chortle, May 2016. Web.





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