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There seems to be a recurring theme here. Aside from the ever-popular Grisham thrillers and Tanya Michaels romances, there are two extremes co-existing under the city’s streets. The first is self-improvement. Noble! Riders pursuing this goal seem to avoid fiction in favor of straight-up advice and analysis. One even had galleys of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t. (Hint: the first group never reads self-improvement books.) But alongside these models of all-American wholesomeness lurk their emotionally unstable counterparts, clutching poetry and uneasy expressions. Sylvia Plath’s suicide is well charted, as is Augusten Burroughs’ alcoholism. And though it might seem spurious to link these authors with the rapper C-Murder and his “urban novel,” Mr. Murder’s writing career began in jail, and his book focuses on the constant proximity of death. We’re sure Ms. Plath would understand.
Disregard for one moment the strictures of time, history and box office potential and picture this scene on the G train as directed by, say, Wes Anderson: A young Yogi Berra, treasonous in a Mets cap, hunches over a fingerprint-stained copy of Brave New World. A few seats down, Nikki Blonsky adjusts her cleavage-baring Fruit-Stripe-Gum-print shirt before pulling Suite Française from the nylon knockoff handbag at her feet. At Clinton-Washington, Pharrell saunters into the dimly lit car, red headphones jammed in his ears and a red-covered Robert Ludlum thriller peeking out from the pocket of his brown denim pants. Katie Holmes, sans Suri and markedly aged after a decade living under Tom Cruise’s reign, grasps The Last Days—a political fantasy about terrorism, how apropos!—tightly to her chest. She looks warily over her shoulder at ageless Andrew Dice Clay, who’s got his legs splayed, his shirt stained and his eyes fixed on the self-help tome Maximum Influence. (Dice can read? “Un-be-liev-able!”)
The central subterranean artery of Brooklyn’s gentrification heads east from Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue, disgorging young downtown hipsters into the land of lower rent and enviable (but inimitable) authenticity. Where iPods, wayfarers, fuchsia denim and neon nails are more pervasive than bookmarks, this train’s reading material looks like an N.Y.U. summer reading list—especially if your poli-sci prof is Russell Hardin or you’d like to replace mathematics with a more appropriate conceptual model for computer science. However, the L’s predictable literary leanings don’t venture all the way to the old Indian village of Canarsie. One word of advice: Unless you want to use “Call me Ishmael” as an ironic pickup line, Nora Roberts and Jim Butcher are more appropriate than Melville’s doorstop during the 45 minutes from Rockaway Parkway to Union Square (yes, L stands for local).
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On the subway line that, perhaps more than any other, weaves a path through the economic extremes of New York City, travelers seem to have a fascination with books of despair and redemption. A politics junkie reads Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. A college student peruses A Confederacy of Dunces, because everyone is required to try at least once. A woman struggling with her career choice reads Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of the her post-divorce self-discovery trek through lots of countries that begin with “I,” in which she finds peace of mind and, of course, a new man. If she had looked around the car for possible candidates, she might have caught a glimpse of the middle-aged gentleman snoozing over The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying Foreclosures.