It’s a day of coincidences. I’m leaving work when the elevator doors opposite open and a pretty brunette comes out in crutches. Not so long ago, I was that person with an ankle brace and crutches at work. An ankle fracture, I ask. I don’t often talk to people I don’t know, but over the last few months, as I went from immobile to hopping on two crutches, to one crutch and finally limping around unsupported, it dawned on me that ankle fractures aren’t that common and that no one around me knew anything about dealing with one. I really wished then that there was someone I could talk to, who had been through something similar.
In the Metro, I open The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami to page 76. I quickly lose myself in sixteenth century America. After a while, I notice a young girl in a pretty navy dress. She’s reading, which is not that common a sight. A few stations later, she sits down. She’s facing me, and I can see her from the gap between the seats in front of me. She holds up her book, and I gasp. It’s The Moor’s Account.
The friend who lent me this book has quite unusual tastes, and usually suggests books I wouldn’t come across in the ordinary course of things, so I’m really intrigued to see this girl reading it. I instantly feel compelled to take out my phone and write about this coincidence. As we head out of the train, I catch the girl’s attention and we compare notes. For the second time today, I’ve spoken to a stranger. I’m so pleased by this experience that I decide to chronicle it. Then it strikes me, why not chronicle other readers and books in the Metro over the course of, say, a month? I feel confident I’ll have enough material. It seems like there have been more readers on the Metro over the past year than before, and besides, I’d just spotted one yesterday. I decide I’ll start my chronicle from the day before, and go all the way up to October 10th.
Rewind to the previous day, when I sat down opposite a man with beard, reading The President is Missing by President Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I’d never heard of it but having just read a James Patterson book a few months ago, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. It’s a pass for me.
Just when I’m wondering if this idea has any legs, a woman from Islamabad strikes up a conversation with me. I’ve moved on to War and Peace, my project for the year, and she says she read it in 1996.
I ask her what she’s been reading lately. She replies that she doesn’t read anymore except for work, which is something finance-related. The last book she read was Family Matters. Rohinton Mistry? She shrugs and says she doesn’t remember the author, but that he was Indian. Then, she narrows her eyes and gives me a little lecture on being focused and avoiding distraction (I assume she means that my reading fiction is a distraction, and it is of course, and thankfully so).
I mentally note her beautifully applied eyeliner and thick coats of mascara, as well as her rapid style of talking as she flits from subject to subject. She recommends Dostoevsky to me, though she considers it “depressing”. And Anna Karenina which again is, “depressing”. I’ve read both, but I don’t say so, as I fear another lecture.
I don’t have my book today, so I decide to reply to a friend’s email. If I’d found a place to sit, I’d be asleep. A man my age with greying hair stands before me, reading. He’s standing just far enough that I can’t read the print. I just about make out ‘Foreword’, and I’m mildly impressed that he hasn’t skipped it. I catch the words “philosophy per se” and think it’s perhaps self-help, which is usually the most common genre on the Metro. Then he shifts his book so that the cover is backlit and I can read Murakami in reverse. I’m pleased. But which one? It’s too slim to be Kafka on the Shore, The Windup Bird Chronicles, IQ84 or Norwegian Wood, which are the titles I remember at that moment. I can’t remember the name of the slender one I’ve read, so I resolve to google it, and all the others I haven’t read. After 10 minutes, I give up my attempts to see the title.
At some point I lose track of Murakami-fan-san (as I’m calling him in my head) but then notice a tall, sharply dressed European chap engrossed in a thickish volume, right across the train from me. I consider moving closer to him to see the title but just then, I finally get a place to sit and that is that. I spend some time thinking of the rarity of not one, but two men reading.
When I exit four stations later, he’s still reading and it’s the most recent Dan Brown. Judging by the look on his face, he’s really into it.
To the young Indian girl in the orange top, sorry for the creepy behavior I’m about to relate. I spot her as soon as I enter the train, leaning against the Metro door, engrossed. She’s halfway through her book and I’m slightly envious as all my reading still hasn’t made a dent in War and Peace.
As always, I’m too far away (or too nearsighted) to read the title. For some reason I feel that the book is not in English. I resolve to inch closer to her under the pretext of queuing up to exit. Thanks to some nimble footwork I end up right behind her and tail her doggedly as we change trains, like a creep at the cinema or a private detective, depending on your point of view. But no matter how much I squint, I can’t read the book that she’s now swinging as she walks. It is in English though. Finally, I catch the words Correa, then Lucas Correa, Golden Girl or perhaps German Girl. I have no data so I’ll have to wait till I’m at work to google.
I look it up later and the book is German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, and it sounds really interesting. It moves from war torn Germany to Havana and then New York. I had not thought of the Metro as source for book recommendations, but it is turning out be quite effective in that respect.
My book encounter in the morning is brief. I glimpse The Eight by Katherine Neville while waiting for the tram. Goodreads tells me that it is a historical whodunnit. Damn, Metro folk, you impress me!
The same evening, I’m on the green line train, a few stops away from home. I look at this girl because her outfit’s so chic and then do a double take because she’s reading. Having spotted someone reading in the morning, I haven’t bothered to survey the crowd in the evening. Then follows the now-familiar routine of straining to read the title. The font is large and I make out This is… She’s even holding it up and not obscuring the cover. I do think, briefly, that I should be reading my book instead of trying to see what she’s reading. However, Tolstoy has Pierre joining the Freemasons right now and I’m a bit uninterested. I move closer eventually and read: This is not Your Story. I think to myself, all book covers should feature such large titles. It’s by a Savi Sharma and Goodreads files it under ‘Indian Urban Novel’, a genre that has its share of duds. Now, I’m secretly hoping this is the last book I see, as this piece is getting very long.
Nope, I spot another book. After the dry spell at the start, it’s positively raining literature now. The title du jour is that old favourite of the aspiring marketing professional, Freakonomics. The aspiring marketing professional in this case is a girl in her twenties. I’m still at page 350 or so with Tolstoy, and I despair of making progress just as much as Princess Mary despairs of her father ever believing in God.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Now we’re talking! I’ve long believed that the average DXB reader is mostly into motivational books. This sweeping conclusion is based on minimal empirical evidence from the Metro, but since I started this exercise my theory has been given the lie. Right now, I’m in a special bus on my way to Ibn Battuta mall for a store visit. I admire people who can read in the bus, like the blonde before me, and secretly wish her much enlightenment and ability-to-deal-with-life-ness.
It’s the last day of my book experiment, which has proven to be more prolific than I imagined. The Metro ride itself is uneventful but there she is in the connecting tram, a woman in her twenties, her book held aloft with its arresting black and white cover and red font. I inch closer (I’m blasé about this now). The book is Millennium 5 by David Lagercrantz. In French. I know this is the much talked about continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books. I’ve found the original three not especially well-written but extremely enjoyable all the same. I resolve to give the sequels a whirl sometime.
It’s been a fun and illuminating ride this past month. When I started out, I expected to see a few books at the most, and I would’ve bet they’d be motivational stuff or pulp fiction. While not entirely wrong (hello, Dan Brown), I’m pleasantly surprised at the depth and amount of reading I’ve spotted. As for me, I’ve made good progress on War and Peace, reaching page 481 of my 958-page edition, with its tiny print.