I recently found out that I am a “super commuter”, a term which sounds as if it should be referring to a superhero with the power to clear up traffic jams or remove odors from a bus or to perform some other such unrealistic miracle. However, it just means someone who spends 90 minutes or more commuting to work every day. My own commute is generally around three hours total: an hour and a half each way. It’s sometimes faster if I drive rather than take public transit, but I prefer my trains. I head to the BART station each morning at 5:45, transfer to MUNI light rail, and arrive at work by 7:15. At this time of the year, the station looks like a dark, eerie science-fiction set when I arrive before dawn and by the time I step into the street in San Francisco, the sunrise is beginning to burst into view, flooding angled light along the length of the street as if someone spilled a pail of sunlight.
On the ride, I read. (Sometimes I write, too. I wrote this on my phone during my commute.) I try to switch between light reading and heavier fare, sometimes reading books concurrently, as with a recent juggling between a heavy book by Hans Urs von Balthasar and a light book by Terry Pratchett.
Sometimes people will peer over my shoulder to see what I’m reading. Reading Christopher Dawson once led to a conversation with a Lutheran historian about Medieval politics in Northern England. Reading a book on Distributism caused a young political activist to jot down the author and title when a glance at a page had him nodding in agreement with a Chestertonian aphorism. Then there’s the conspiratorial nods you give to a fellow reader of authors such as Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers, followed by the question, “Which of his is your favorite?”
I’ve also gotten various book recommendations on bus or train. A dozen years ago a scruffy man buttonholed me at a MUNI stop and told me I had to read a book called A Confederacy of Dunces. Had to. He was so insistent that I took the bus to the nearest bookstore and picked up a copy of what would become one of my favorite novels.
Reading on bus or train does carry some risks. After getting a copy of Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean (another favorite novel), I got lost in its pages and missed my train stop. I’ve also fallen into people while reading standing up and losing my balance when a bump and a page turn coincided while my hand was off a support.
In the past few years I’ve noticed my fellow commuter-readers declining in number. More often people sit watching movies or television on their phones, scroll through social media, or play games. The readers who are left are often reading on tablets or e-readers. Those with actual books in tow are an endangered species, the Luddites. No wonder that many of the people I see with printed books are self-conscious hipsters with ironic eyewear holding books meant to impress; vintage editions of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche abound, artfully held so other passengers can easily see the cover.
Of course, I’m one to talk, since I’m tapping this out on a smartphone. My stop is approaching. And I haven’t had a chance yet to see what will happen in the next chapter of my book. So, if you’ll excuse me—I’m going to see if I can get a few pages in before I need to step out of the train. So long!
Photographs: East Bay BART station and a morning view of a MUNI light rail train in San Francisco, taken on my smartphone.