Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On The Literary Benefits of Mass Transit

In 2003, I took a job running a bookstore in Costa Mesa. I was living in Koreatown, a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. The difference between the two is about 50 miles. 50 miles through Southern California traffic, down the 110 to the 405, is, well, unpleasant. On a typical day, it took me an hour and a half to get work and another hour and a half to get home. I made this commute in a Dodge Neon that leaked oil, had intermittent air conditioning, and no CD or cassette player. I listened to a lot of talk radio. I discovered things I never thought I'd know: where the traffic always slowed, mysteriously, on the 405, the cadence of Jim Rome's many dead air pauses (Rome, the master of the dead air pause), the lay of the fairway on the 8th hole at Domingez Hills (it's right off the 405), where Brookhurst is (Fountain Valley. Until I took that job, it was just a name intoned mournfully by the traffic reporter every morning).

Looking back on that commute, I can't help but think of the time wasted, the hours spent in a steel box, waiting, waiting, then finally moving. I sometimes wondered what else I could have been doing with my time. It turns out, I could've read War and Peace or listened to the entirety of Wagner's Ring Cycle. This handy chart, from Good Magazine (who has a fancy new website with a lot of, um, good content) shows exactly what I could've accomplished with all that time.

My commute these days is much shorter -- I can generally drive to work in under thirty minutes -- but, for the most part, I've stopped driving to work. Instead I take the train, changing trains at Union Station, and walking the final six or so blocks to Vroman's (check it out on the Metro map here). This trip takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on trains, each way. In other words, it's about the same as the commute I had into Orange County back in 2003. But otherwise, it couldn't possibly be more different.

Initially, I began riding the Metro for environmental reasons (and economic, of course), but as I've grown accustomed to riding the train every day, I'm starting to notice the secondary and tertiary benefits of mass transit. I'm getting some exercise (I always take the stairs up from the station), and man, am I getting some reading done! Since I started riding the subway to work, I would estimate that I've read three times the number of books I read in a similar time span while commuting by car. In fact, I've read more books than I did last year already, and last year I worked mainly from home, with a commute of roughly three seconds (from my bedroom to my living room). And I'm enjoying my commute so much more. I arrive at work having already jump-started my brain with an hour of reading (and a liter of coffee), and I'm ready to begin my day. I haven't read War and Peace yet (It's a touch too heavy for the train), but thanks to my commute, I can at least envision a world where I have the time to tackle it.

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At 10:42 AM, Blogger Don said...

I credit a bus commute for breaking 100 books read last year. I'm at a point in writing my novel where I've started cutting back on reading, so now it comes down to being able to write around 400 words per day on my commute (assuming I can get a computer friendly seat, otherwise, it's reading voiceless non-fiction).

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Patrick said...

Wow, I admire your dedication, Don. I don't think I could do it, writing on the train. I need to be completely secluded to get much of anything done, but I admire those who can just sit down and get going. Do you ever see anyone else writing on public transit? I don't believe I have, but it's a great idea.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Emma said...

Seems like a really great way to either miss your stop or find new characters-- maybe both.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Jay Johnson said...

I drive an hour each way, from Kenosha - just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border - to the bookstore in Milwaukee. Thus, I've thought about this loss of time often, especially since I'm working on my PhD.

Obviously, my commute is a choice I've made, partly assuaged by the Prius, but those two hours a day would be at least an extra 25-50 books a year, let alone the lowered stress levels. Unfortunately, until my community supports the much-discussed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee extension to the Chicago Metra, Amtrak is the only alternative. Frankly, it's too infrequent and expensive to be considered as a daily option for travel.

At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Kat said...

Whenever I hear depressing statistics about how few people read books, I take comfort in riding public transportation--so many readers! It's very sweet to see people with their nose deep in A Thousand Splendid Suns or Clive Cussler or La Opinion. The printed word ain't dead yet.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Molly said...

I still long for the Milwaukee Metro Transit and all the reading I did on the bus while living in Milwaukee. (And that woman who always caught the bus at the same time I did, who always wore the most fantastic shoes.)

Now I live in a rural place, so mass transit isn't an option. Fortunately, my 45-minute commute is quiet enough (read: no traffic and no traffic lights) that I can tape poems to my dashboard and work on memorizing them on my way to work. Right now, I'm memorizing "The Idea of Order at Key West", which is kind company in the morning.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger andrea said...

The best part about carpooling with my mom to work was being able to read during the hour long car trip.

At 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's what audiobooks are for.

You can get most of the classics for free from Librivox (though the quality of the reader varies greatly, as it's all done by volunteers).

If you have some coin, you can join Audible or other paid service, which usually has professional voice readers (makes a big difference).


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