The Null Device

No-one actually reads when they commute

Commuters in Stockholm will soon have access to library book dispensers on the city's subway:
The idea is that residents will be able to stick their library card into the 'bookomatic' and choose from up to 700 titles. It was inspired by a similar machine in Lidingö library, which, since its launch a year ago, has been happily loaning out around 500 books a month.
Sweden already has the ubiquitous free commuter papers, full of wire news stories and lifestyle articles listing the latest fashions/gadgets/DVDs/holiday destinations; the book idea sounds like a more Scandinavian socialist take on the concept, less concerned with keeping the reader running hard on the hedonic treadmill and more with an idea of civilised communal amenity and supporting public culture. (Of course, it could well be that the books are sponsored and carry ads and/or product placement.)

Meanwhile, The Times' Caitlin Moran deconstructs the very idea of commuter reading material and its true purpose, from a characteristically English point of view:

Library book dispensers on trains are nothing to do with books. Sweden isn't, as a result of all this, going to become more literate, and start quoting bits of The Brothers Karamazov during trade meetings at the UN. No one actually reads when they commute. "Reading" s all about avoiding eye-contact with anyone in your carriage. You are, after all, travelling at 80mph, in a sealed pod, with a great many people — any one of whom could try to talk to you about secret codes in the Bible, or George Galloway.
As anyone who uses the London Underground will confirm, the Evening Standard, circulation 350,000, isn't a newspaper at all. No one pays the slightest attention to the articles inside. It's merely a disposable, 40p screen that one erects for privacy between Goodge Street and Archway. But this screen is vital. Without it, the only option, on being approached by a nutter, is to pretend to have seen something fascinating out of the window — even though you are, at the time, in a 12-mile-long pitch-black tunnel under Camden Town. Halfway through such an exercise — maybe when staring intently at a brick all covered in black sticky fluff — one can start to wonder just who the nutter is here, after all.
Moran then goes on to suggest, in Swiftean fashion, that this mass social avoidance is a wasted opportunity to discover the resources offered by one's fellow commuters:
For instance, we'd all love to have a wide selection of friends, spanning all ages, cultures, professions and sexual persuasions. Well — here they all are! Pressing into your back! Within these airless walls is a human Google — practically everything you could ever need in one lifetime. The number of a good plumber. The address of the best mojitos in Barcelona. A phenomenal one-night stand. Someone who knows Julie Elliman, with whom you lost contact in 1990. A guy you can pretend is your friend for the next ten years, sporadically tapping up for free legal advice. Someone who knows how to falsify a breathalyser test. A nun. If only we could all get talking, commuting would be transformed from a semi- unendurable hell into the biggest, most egalitarian networking mechanism known to man.
Her modest proposal is to pump laughing gas into peak-hour Underground carriages, breaking down those awkward social barriers and getting everyone talking and having a great time. I'm not sure about laughing gas, though I imagine it may be an ideal test environment for aerosolised oxytocin.

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