Writers You Should Absolutely Never Read on the Subway
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a book on the subway must be flexing and harboring a secret desire to appear on @hotdudesreading. Obviously this doesn't include you. And obviously you've never pivoted 15 degrees to the left in the hopes that the lady with the n+1 tote bag will take note of the universally acclaimed work of literary fiction you're pretending to underline. For those who do, however, insist on letting ego and pageantry sully their single opportunity to access another's mind, here's what that hypothetical subway-rider should shy away from, lest that purely hypothetical (undoubtedly learned) commuter look like a hack. Once again, definitely not you.
To increase your chances of appearing on @hotdudesreading and not @guyinyourmfa, check out which authors to leave on your mahogany bookshelf, and which ones you should read at eye level to ensure everyone takes note.
David Foster WallaceReading David Foster Wallace on the subway is a bit like blasting Bob Marley from your dorm room window. There's nothing wrong with either of them. In fact, they're both Great Artists™. But most people probably didn't want to get high with the guy who aggressively made sure that everyone in the dorm thought he was a stoner. Same principal here. Also, a movie about him came out in the last year, so everyone's going to assume that that's how you know him, and frankly, that would be unbearable, so better to just steer clear.
Who to read instead: Ben Lerner has picked up where Wallace left off -- i.e., trying to figure out what we're supposed to do with all this irony filling up our heart-place -- and represents an even trendier alternative to the now-canonized Patron Saint of Neurotics. In 10:04, Lerner finds a way to make metafiction (the thinking man's... the man's man's... man's genre) seem like it could serve a function beyond validating insecure liberal-arts graduates. Plus, the protagonist lives in Brooklyn, just like you!
Jonathan FranzenOl' Franzen gets a bad rap, the legitimacy of which is irrelevant considering his acclaim, fame, and wealth comfort him when we say mean things about him. So here's the thing, a whole lot of the book-reading population does not dig the man -- and more importantly, what he represents to them. There's a whole set of assumptions that come with a Brooklyn-residing white man with literary pretensions and glasses declaring those pretensions, holding a book by the poster child (poster crotchety old man?) of that phenomenon.
Who to read instead: Why not take Franzen at his word and finally read Alice Munro? She recently won the Nobel Prize, and, in Franzen's words, "has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America." Let's also note that she's basically Tolstoy and Chekhov fused into a mild-mannered Canadian, AND that you won’t be another young white male asshole reading a slightly older white male asshole. Above all, at the end of your arduous journey, as you settle down for the night with your glass of locally produced fish milk concentrate or whatever it is we drink now, you can feel like you're Part of the Solution!
J. D. SalingerWe get it: you used CliffsNotes when Catcher in the Rye was assigned to you at the tender (and ripe for Salingerization) age of 14. You're feeling guilty, and you thought, "Hey, why not?" Well, have some goddamn self-respect and read him in your apartment if you have to, because you might as well be wearing a "Holden Caulfield thinks you're a phony" T-shirt, is why not.
Who to read instead: Franny and Zooey really is a good book. But we don't make the rules. Haven't you been meaning to to read Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar anyway? We'll have a book club; it'll be great.
E. L. JamesAh yes, that other first-two-names-are-initials literary great. If you're reading the fourth book in this series (made up of Mr. Grey's diary entries, in which he reflects on what a gross misrepresentation of the S&M lifestyle his actions and attitudes are, presumably) you are no longer taking part in a pop-culture phenomenon; you are reading porn on the subway. Near a bunch of strangers. Who aren't doing that. Would you watch porn on the subway?
Who to read instead: If you do insist on reading smut, at least do it in style with Anne Desclos' (as Pauline Réage) Story of O, Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs. The first is a tale of S&M written in elegant prose, rather than what seems to be the diary of the world's most promiscuous glue-huffing preteen. The latter two are where we get our words for sadism & masochism, which you can mansplain to whomever you catch staring at the title, as they wonder why you feel the need to read any of this in public. Because you're a goddamned scholar, that's why.
H. P. LovecraftTrue Detective turned you on to him. You like supernatural stuff. This seems fancier than Stephen King. Got it. But let's keep these things in mind: the dude was super, super racist, and the dude was not even a particularly good writer. So let's all agree to call him H. P. Hatescraft and spend our commute in better ways.
Who to read instead: Read Toni Morrison's Beloved. The book has supernatural elements so you can get your spooky-fix in, and it was voted the best book of the last 25 years by the New York Times in 2006. Just be a real American and read the damn book.
Friedrich NietzscheWe probably don't understand you well enough to comment on this. Probably no one ever has. Probably no one ever will. Probably you're dressed in all black (like Prince Hamlet, no doubt). You're not making any friends here.
Who to read instead: Why not read Milan Kundera? His books are still In Translation. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is one of Louis C.K.’s favorite books, and we know how much you love him. But seriously, Kundera's work explores and extends Nietzsche's ideas in moving, beautiful, and novel ways, as opposed to those other people who were influenced by him and, you know, headed fascist regimes. Ubermensch, indeed.
Pick-up artists/Tucker MaxYou have to be a circa-2008 fratboy sent to the future in the Hot Tub Time Machine for this to make any sense. Also you’re probably just bad. Just a bad man. Shame...
Who to read instead: If you want sexually explicit details, a study of masculinity, and misogyny disguised as literature, read a goddamn Philip Roth novel.
Any young adult writer if you're over the age of 17There has admittedly been some pushback against this attitude in the last couple years, but how many books do you have time to read in your life? You want your parents to recognize that you're an adult now anyway, so why not challenge yourself intellectually and emotionally and experience something that wasn't made for the population who listened to the previous, not-socially-acceptable-to-enjoy incarnation of Justin Bieber.
Who to read instead: Do you like plot? Intrigue? Orphans? Young people discovering themselves? Romance? (JK, you don't waste time on stuff like that -- where the phallic whales at!?) Why not read a 19th-century author? Many YA tropes were established in those books, and they were supported by beyond-third-grade-level sentence structure, philosophical intensity, and moral seriousness. Some might argue that all of these are present in some of the better contemporary YA novels. Fine... but do you get to travel back in time!? If I said you could spend 10 hours in the mind of your great-great grandmother and know her daily preoccupations, her aspirations, and her struggles, you'd do it, right? And what if your grandma were a genius, too? Well, grab a copy of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and hop on into this HOT TUB TIME MACHINE OF THE SOUL!
Any writer with a movie adaptation in theatersThis also applies to books with the movie poster on the cover. Here's the deal: movies are for the masses, for people who don't maximize the productivity of their daily commute with the great achievements of the Humanist tradition, because frankly they're not as smart, ambitious, or as open-minded as you are. And how are any of the people on the train supposed to recognize that about you if they know that you go to movie theaters that have over 50 seats in them?
Who to read instead: Read some books that were written before movies were invented -- better yet, before photography -- or even better, before the codex! Let's go back to the oral tradition. Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey are basically action movies with really good dialogue (Homer = proto Quentin Tarantino?), so just pick up one of those ancient epics, preferably in the original Greek. You picked up Greek on the side while you took Latin in high school, didn't you?
Literally any self-help authorIt's like eating on the subway. Sure, you could do it, but people will look at you funny, will refuse to make eye contact with you, and when unable to sleep later that night will think of how selfish it was of you to inflict seeing that upon them.
Who to read instead: Why not read Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up? Published in 1621, this book is full of untranslated quotations from all sorts of people you've never heard of. It's an exhaustive history and historiography of why you feel so small deep down inside. Upon flipping through the copy in the Thrillist office, it seems he left out the section dealing with the melancholy of not having our fellow passengers think we're smarter than them, but there might be a passage in there that explains why we care at all.
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James Chrisman is exactly the guy you think he is after reading this article. He is also a copy editor at Thrillist, and this is an excerpt from his diary. @james_chrisman2