Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reading and Living in the City

It probably goes without saying that Manhattan is a place unlike any other. Depending on the day and the subject, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. We can get anything we want, at any time of the night - delivered if we so choose (good thing). We have to commute to work on crowded subways carrying passengers in various stages of cleanliness (bad thing). We have 843 acres right in the middle of our city of grass, woods, trails, and fields in which to play (good thing). We live in teeny-tiny apartments and consider ourselves lucky when said apartments boast full size kitchens and closets (bad thing). And the list goes on.

After seven years of living and working in this city, I have come to understand and appreciate Manhattan both for what it is, and what it is not. I love it for all of the things that it has given me - a law degree, a husband, incredible friends, a backbone, and epic adventures. And I dislike it, sometimes immensely, for all the annoyances that come with city living - carrying grocery bags home in the pouring rain, lack of closet space, barking dogs in the apartment next door, and steaming hot subway platforms. Needless to say, I have complicated feelings about Manhattan.

But even with all the complexity, sometimes something emerges from this city of ours that is magic. That makes me say, in that moment, "I am really glad to live here." I had one of those moments recently, and because it is Tuesday, the day where I pass along fun and happy things that I discover, I thought it was the perfect time to share.

You all know that I am loud and proud when it comes to the books I read. I love to read on buses, subways, and pretty much anywhere I have a free few minutes. And even more than I love to read during my commutes though, I love to look around to see what everyone else is reading. This has become more difficult lately due to the ubiquity of e-readers. When Kindles abound, we who like to spy on readers and their book selections have a choice to make. We can either decide to let our curiosity dissipate, or we can hover over the Kindle user's shoulder to try and catch the title of the book that lives at the top of the screen while simultaneously attempting the correct body language so as not to come across as a creepy stalker. I have tried this second option, many times. It's a hard balance to strike. Trust me.

So those of us who like to carry actual books and watch other people who carry actual books are usually left disappointed and wondering what will become of our most favored accessory now that e-readers rule the day.

Enter today's bit of fun.

While perusing some blogs the other day, I stumbled upon a link to something called the Underground New York Public Library. In 2008, a photographer named Ourit Ben-Haim got an idea. Her idea was to ride the New York City subways, and take pictures of readers. For four years she has haunted subway trains and platforms, capturing straphangers immersed in the pages of books. Not in the screens of e-readers, but in the actual pages of actual books. And late last year, she turned her work into a blog.

Every day she posts pictures of people consuming their literature of choice, and invites her followers to look and to comment. The pictures are generally candid, and the subway lines are never disclosed. Ourit doesn't provide editorials, or stick to a particular author or genre. She doesn't seek out a specific class of individuals. She just looks for people holding books, and she takes their picture. Late last week she even caught a woman reading a Nora.

The result of Ourit's efforts is a stunning portrait of the community of readers that meets below the city streets. A community that I love, and a community of which I am a frequent member. At a time where countless people are embracing the anonymity of the e-reader, her work has never been more important.

I have spent a good part of my life connecting with people through the books that we read, and feel an instant kinship with the readers portrayed on the pages of Ourit's Underground Public Library. I get a little thrill when I spy a picture of someone reading something familiar to me, and have even copied down titles of books I don't recognize to add to my ever-growing library. I hope you will take a minute on this otherwise ordinary Tuesday to check out Ourit's blog, and I hope that one of her pictures speaks to you, as they do so often to me. Together, we will keep tangible books en vogue for a long time to come.

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