The only pleasurable part of taking the subway, as everyone will agree, is concocting elaborate fantasies about what it would be like to be married to the most interesting strangers you see there. (Everyone does this, right?) And a part of the systematic investigation of each person for his or her marriage potential is catching a glimpse of the cover of the book they are reading. Points are assigned and deducted according to the interest of the subject matter: Extra points go to non-romance prose of any genre, even accounting textbooks; a self -help book of any kind instantly cancels the contract.
There is some sociological value to the investigation, too: It is on the subway that one sees answers to mysterious questions. What actual person might voluntarily read Eat, Pray, Love? The freckled 35-year-old businessman with the squash racquet, that's who. What kind of person reads Louis MacNeice's Selected Verse? The odorous lady with all her belongings in plastic bags, apparently.
If people didn't read books on the subway, underground journeys would be dreary. In fact, come to think of it, it's the rest of the world that's dreary, because above ground there are no public places left where people read books. All coffee shops now have WiFi. Why bring a book when you could be wittily attacking some idiot columnist on Twitter, or responding to your date requests, or posting a picture of your foot? All of that is more gripping and immediate and social than books. If I have a computer or a tablet in my hand, there's no way I'm going to read a memory of someone's mother's funeral in Cape Breton, no matter how poignantly described it is. Dense narratives are powerless in the face of personal feuds and sexual conquest. Cafés are places for computers now, places for focused silent debate with people who are somewhere else.
So are libraries: rows and rows of screens. (And the soundtrack of libraries now: that faint regular clicking, the ghosts of electronic beats escaping from a roomful of headphones.)
People are starting to wonder why you would touch the books in libraries anyway, since they are so widely shared. Common property, one size fits all, uncustomizable, not your own personal digital landscape … yuck! Microbiologists at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, found that of 10 books taken from the main library in Antwerp, every single one carried traces of cocaine, and some of them had traces of the herpes simplex virus. The books they chose to study were the 10 most popular in the library, and even a children's book came back cocaine-positive. (Of course, as a boon to headline writers around the world, Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the ones with herpes on it – cue "Book goes viral," etc.)
The Leuven researchers qualified their study by admitting that there's an unusual amount of drugs in Antwerp, since it's a port, and that the traces of drugs and disease they found are so microscopic as to be completely unharmful. In other words, it's a pointless and meaningless study, whose only effect might be to further alienate people from old-fashioned paper books. Why did the researchers not swab the computer keyboards in Antwerp libraries? If it's germs you're worried about, your own cellphone is probably the biggest threat in your library.
Ah, phones – they are the death of literary voyeurism. In recent years, my subway reveries have been curtailed by the presence of e-readers. I can't tell if the sad-looking lady with the fox collar is reading Walter Benjamin or Sheryl Sandberg on her grey (and germy) plastic slab; that fatally hinders my ability to imagine our conjugal existence. What is the point of the subway now?
And there is even worse news for Torontonians: The city's Transit Commission is about to introduce free WiFi to its underground stations. It has already launched the service in two interchange stations. The inexorable spread of free e-mail and Facebook feuds to the entire system – one might think of it as free stress – will gestate over 20 years and cost the Internet-providing contractor $25-million. Doubtless in 20 years every subway system in the world will be fully wired.
Does anyone realize what a disaster, what a cataclysm this represents, not just for my sociological and voyeuristic enjoyment but for the future of literature? Think about it: The subway is the only remaining public place where you actually have an excuse for not answering an e-mail about your holiday plans the second it arrives; the only place where you are free – very, very briefly free – from gluttonously following the updates about Boopsie Starlet's nipple slip and about your boss's divorce. Once this connection is effected, no books will ever be read again. Subway WiFi is the final nail in the coffin of literature – and in my imaginary parallel future domestic bliss.