Not Safe for the Subway


Would you judge me for reading this? Yes. Yes you would.

Recently I received a review copy of A Summer Without Men, a new novel by Siri Hustvedt, in the mail. I liked her last novel, The Sorrows of an American just fine, and I think she’s a lovely writer. But somehow I cannot seem to finish reading this book to write a review.

Why? Because the title is too cringe-worthy for the train, where I do probably 75 percent of my non-internet reading these days.

A Summer Without Men just sounds like a poem written in a divorce support group, and well, I form opinions about people based on what I see them reading on the train. I don’t have a Kindle or an iPad, but that’s part of their appeal–no one would know. You’d have complete literary privacy.

I realized that ASWM is not the only book languishing on my desk because I’m too embarrassed to read it on the train. So I took a quick, totally non-scientific poll using gchat to find out what some friends and coworkers might find too shaming to read in public. The results broke out into several distinct categories.

Too Pretentious
The Power Broker
, Robert A. Caro’s more than 1000-word masterpiece about Robert Moses not only makes you look pretentious, it’s also just too heavy to carry in your bag. Middlemarch, which I have been trying to read since the late nineties, also falls in this category.

Too Personal
Two self-help titles came up: Love without Hurt and Taking Control of Your Fertility. Diet book titles were also mentioned.

Attracting the Wrong Kind of Attention
One pal said that New York Magazine’s recent porn issue made her uncomfortable to read on the train. Sex and the Single Girl popped up in this category, as did Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style.

An Invitation to Judge
So my friends might be a judgmental crew. Ok, we totally are–one of my besties once told me that she refused to reply to any dude who mentioned The Da Vinci Code in his online dating profile. So predictably, a number of books came up that are likely totally great tomes, but we perceived that others’ might judge us for reading them, because we’d probably do the same. Swamplandia was on this list (“It was like, last month’s buzz book and i would judge someone for reading it.”), as was Hunger Games.  A Summer Without Men fits into this category, too, and so does Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, because it seems like everyone is reading it right now.

Vampires, Wizards and Swedish Crime Novels
This is an important subcategory of An Invitation to Judge. One person admitted to reading Twilight, but never on the train, and almost everyone else referenced it, saying that the vapid thing they were reading was still way better than Twilight. Another friend mentioned Laurell Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter series as a guilty pleasure she would never display in public. “The only two public places an adult should be seen reading Harry Potter are the airport and the beach,” said another. Oh, and the big winner here? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or any book in its orbit.

4 Responses

  1. Sunset Park reader -

    Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith is definitely a contender here.


    i spotted a woman reading: “sex lives of cannibals” and laughing….i wouldn’t do that!!

  3. MarleyMagaziner -

    I’m confused about the “Invitation to Judge” section. Is that good judging or bad judging? Aren’t all books an invitation to judge, that’s the point of the article, right?

    As for the books listed there, I would personally judge someone positively if he or she were reading last month’s it book–wow, you read! you’re reading books that just came out! And they’re fiction! And for adults! Let’s get married! Are there any books that are ok to read on the train, y’all? According to your criteria, any book is too this or too that. The Pale King? Yay, intellectual, but potentially snobby and definitely heavy. Bossypants? Sure, it came out yesterday, but if you work in media (like all the cool kids) you should have read your comp copy it by now, it’s also fluffy and has a celebrity author.

    See? Can’t win!

    I would love an article that tells me what I should read on the train, because it’s good, and not what I shouldn’t read because it’s not cool. I understand that the piece was written in jest but…isn’t being cool is about not giving a fuck what people think of you no matter what you read on the train? So…let’s have some good suggestions!

    And I happen to be reading Blood, Bones, and Butter and it’s goooood. It’s barely been out for a month, too…so, I’m cool, right?


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