For a week or so, I’ve been reading Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a great book and I’m enjoying it, but that isn’t what this blog is about.
It’s a masterful novel. Definitely. And the edition I have is lovely. Thick creamy paper bound just loose enough that it lies open relaxed. But it’s a BIG book. At 771 pages hidden under a hard cover, it’s heavy to hold, and what’s worse, it’s impractical to lug around. And so I’m exasperated. It travels like a person in an airport with three overweight suitcases.
Yesterday morning, for instance, I was forced to head to Pointe-Claire train station without it, because the work-related material I was carrying (to teach three different groups of students), along with my lunch, was already straining my elbows and shoulders.
Having to leave it behind bothered me. I so look forward to those two, thirty to forty-minute periods aboard the train when everything I have left undone at home and everything that awaits me at work are suspended, and I’m able, instead, to escape into a book, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train.
I know for a fact that these patches of time are precious to many commuting readers. For a time last year, when their workplaces were downtown, my eldest sons, who are identical twins with very different lives, arranged as often as possible to be on the same early morning train, just to spend some time together. The interesting thing is that they had a pact: to sit together, side by side, and read comfortably, knowing that they wouldn’t be disturbed. They looked forward to these daily moments of companionable reading.
Because I was bookless yesterday, I couldn’t help looking around at the other passengers. Many typed away on laptops or texted on their phones, but still more sat very still with their eyes focused on the newspapers and books they were reading. I caught myself several times trying to read the sideways book titles on the spines of paperbacks, hardcover editions and library books.
It occurred to me that a good book, beyond purely literary and critical considerations, is one for which we develop a fondness. How this happens is somewhat mysterious, but among commuting readers, I think that a book’s serviceability is a prime consideration.
This includes the travelability factor: is the book heavy? Easy to hold and well bound? Can I fit it in my purse? In my laptop bag? Is it moisture resistant? Will its pages easily curl and stiffen on a rainy day?
In order to pass the commuting reader’s serviceability test, a good book also has to score top marks for its plunge factor, by which I mean the ease with which the book allows the reader to plunge back into the story anywhere and at any time―for longish stretches or for ten minute sprints on the bus―and easily reconnect with the narrative. The plunge factor is a major consideration. We remember, recommend and share books that never required us to backtrack several pages just so we could make sense of the page we had bookmarked.
When I asked one of my twins which books he has the fondest public transit reading memories of, he thought immediately of the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, which saw him through the odyssey of his PhD. He also remembers deliberately taking a much longer bus route home so that he could read more of The Da Vinci Code.
In the end, we are most fond of the books that take us on journeys to places beyond the here and now, even when the latter are in a train car or on a standing-room-only bus.
Which fondly remembered books met an even surpassed your travelability and plunge factor expectations? Do let us know!