Someone queried the Paris Review, "Can you recommend any books that will make interesting people approach me if I read them on the subway?" We certainly can.
The writer's intentions were pure: she continued, "During A Moveable Feast, people came up and quoted entire passages verbatim, and it really enhanced the reading experience." While this sounds potentially problematic during the morning commute, we see where she's coming from...and especially after seeing how often book titles figure in Missed Connections, it's hard not to wonder, sometimes, exactly what could function as an ice-breaker.
Of course, like many of these things, there's an element of mystery. Chances are if you don't want anyone to talk to you, that's exactly when somebody will want to delve into Pynchon's use of the indirect. Similarly, if someone wants to approach you, they'll find a pretext - even if you're just reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo like everyone else on the bus. ("Is that a textbook?" was someone's lame opener on the D.C. Metro - and I was paging through Goodnight Moon.) But if you want to hedge your bets, be it for love, "networking" or what have you ("what have you" in this case means conning someone, probably), here's what TPR suggested:
The trick is to choose books that have cult followings, and so create a sense of secret fellowship-but that large numbers of your fellow-riders have actually read. That's why it depends somewhat on your subway line. As Philip Roth is to the Seventh Avenue trains, so Jonathan Lethem is to the F. For the Q I might carry either story collection of Edward P. Jones (impress your new friend by pointing out that the two collections are linked, story by story) or anything by Lipsyte or Shteyngart. (Each of whom is also beloved on the L.)
Lorin Stein, TPR's editor, adds that "I will instantly take a friendly interest in anyone I see reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Norman Rush's Mortals, IJ, anything by Adam Phillips, or the essays of Charles Lamb." So, aspiring writers, NB.
To this sage advice, we'd add the following specific suggestions:
- The Sea Wolf, Jack London. 3 different dudes struck up conversations with my friend while he was reading this. Men love Jack London, it's simple fact.
- Pictures From An Institution, Randall Jarrell. Meets all the stated criteria above, plus is just a good, endlessly quotable read.
- A Rebours (Against Nature), Joris-Karl Huysmans. On the one hand, you may not want to talk to anyone who get excited about this classic, because they're frequently tiresome and go in for affectations like wearing monacles and owning absinthe spoons. On the other hand, this is how my friend got her camelback couch, so.
- Cookbooks in general, with a special emphasis on Italian. For pure conversation-starting, you can't beat it. Some will be confused, others intrigued, and many will have opinions. Approachable and unifying, like food itself. (Any technology manual will attract the attention of specialists.)
- Betsy-Tacy, Maud-Hart Lovelace. Carry any of this series only if you want to be approached by me and talked at very intensely until you pretend to have reached your stop, at which point I may follow you, droning on about Deep Valley High, Joe Willard and the Violent Study Club.
Of course, many of us just want to read in peace, without the tyranny of Cover Spy or the threat of an impromptu book-group. And for you, technology has obliged in the form of the Kindle - and literature in the form of The Fountainhead.
Books For The Subway, Reading At Weddings [The Paris Review]