Julie tells me she likes to watch. She makes notes of what she sees. Sometimes it's fascinating and she wants to get involved and strike up a conversation. But mostly, she observes and imagines beyond what she sees. And she's not a stalker and will never intrude but all of the sudden I see what she sees. I'm trailing her one day on public transit and I TOTALLY GET IT!
Julie is a "Literary Voyeur".
She started noticing what people were reading on public transit and began a blog called Seen Reading. It was her collection of sightings but what made this blog fascinating was the final portion of each blog post, a complementary piece of microfiction. The original blog catalogued over 700 sightings and it continues.
Now Julie has taken 100 of her sightings along with her accompanying fiction shorts and just published SEEN READING The book through Harper Collins Canada (2012). This book is a thoughtful love letter to the nameless readers and an interesting urban cultural map of one of the best loved past-times.
ME: Reading is such a personal activity even on the transit system. Do you ever want to strike a conversation with a reader about the book they are reading?
JULIE: You know, in the six years I've been doing this actively-because I've been checking out readers my whole life - I've only ever twice spoken to a reader, and each time they were right beside me so it wasn't as if I'd pounced from afar. One was a woman who was reading a book that the publisher I was working for at the time had just released. It was Payback by Margaret Atwood (House of Anansi Press) and we were particularly proud of our marketing campaign, one which put Atwood on a dollar bill. The book was everywhere, but readers are not. I think that's one of the reasons I get so jazzed by people who read in public, because for all the books sold, it's an extra step to then read that book. If you do the math, even the biggest best sellers aren't going to be "seen" out in the wild, so much as on bed side tables, you know? So, this was a particular treat, and I had to say something. It's funny, I can remember the exact line. It was University, going south, because I was off my usual path. And I'm all but certain it was a weekend morning. The reader, an older woman, was awfully kind to me. We talked at length about Atwood's books and her impact on Canadian culture. A lovely connection.
The second reader was a fellow who was sitting beside me at the back of the Spadina streetcar reading one of the editions of The Best American Short Stories--and laughing. I mean, that incredible kind of laughing, the kind where you're trying to stop youself-why we do this, who knows; it's a wonderful feeling, but we try so hard NOT to laugh spontaneously in public, which, I have to say, is THE very reason I love doing this project so much, that readers head out into the world with absolutely no clue how they're going to respond to a story. Who knows what could happen next? And at some point, matter of fact, the reader will have a physical reaction to something they read. In this case, the guy was clearly conflicted between giving in to his utter joy and not wanting to disrupt his fellow passengers. Here's the part where I'll frustrate us both, because do you think I can remember what he was reading? No. But perhaps it's just as well, because when I finally leaned in to say "I have to ask. What's so funny?" we didn't talk about the writer or the story itself, he launched into this gleeful diatribe about how wonderful it feels to be so surprised, just by words on a page! I started to laugh along with him, because it's ridiculous! Words. They're just a collection of characters on a page, and yet they make us feel things. Like, really feel. It was another lovely connection.
Then there's the reader I wanted quite badly to approach. He was well into his late 30s, I'd say, standing in the doorway on the Yonge Line. It was probably Bloor, because I remember him sliding in at the last minute and knowing he could stop in the door and lean. We must have been going eastbound, because the door would have opened on the opposite side at Sherbourne. And I never did catch the book he was reading. But he held it very close to his face and ran his finger along each line, his lips quietly sounding out each word. Literacy is a passion of mine, but adult literacy strikes an unusually strong chord in me, because an adult reader often learns because there's a specific function they want or need to perform. The idea of reading for pleasure is on the mind, but not necessarily top of mind. This guy clearly wanted to read for pleasure . And it was in that moment tha tI realized that no matter how long it took him to complete that book, once he had, he would have finished the same book as every other reader who came before him, and he'd step in line with all the readers who would ever read it. In short: he was reading. He was/is a reader.
ME: Funny that you mentioned that about the laughing man. I recall a man on the subway who had walked up to me on a moving train - I was deep into a novel. I must have been smiling at what I was reading as he came over to say "I just love how you're enjoying your book". Made me blush of course but I never realized how the words can create our reactions and then may just be noticed by others.
ME: Is there a method to your collection of data for your SEEN READING BOOK/BLOG?
JULIE: In the very early days of SEEN READING, I would what I call "chase the sighting." It was a game, albeit a very cautious game. I didn't run the length of a subway to track a book title, but I did have this inflated sense that I knew who I wanted to write about, which, as any writer will tell you is a defeatist approach because soon enough the story will reveal that you're in a panic to prove yourself. The true joy of writing comes when you give a certain degree of control over to circumstance and your craft becomes about how you'll respond to that shift. Also, it was exhausting getting up to go to work and think only of the sightings I would "catch" that day. Once I knew there were enough readers to feed my habit, as it were, I relaxed, put the notebook away and just enjoyed my commute. From there, the process became quite simple. If you're a reader and you happen to fall into my sightline, or sit beside me, I'll glimpse at your book and take in as much information as the commute time allows. I don't leer; it's no different than anyone else who might see a fellow passenger and think, "Hmm, I like her shoes. I wonder what brand they are. I'm going to look at them a few more times to try and remember the style."
From there, the next chance I have, I'll write down a few note,s some thoughts about the reader-you never know what will strike you about them- and then I go to a bookstore, find the book they were reading, and turn to the page they were on-because it's Toronto, it's not that hard to catch a peek over someone's shoulder during rush hour-and "remeet" the reader in the very text they were reading when we first met. With all those pieces in hand, I turn the rest over to my inagination. Sometimes, I invent a fictional past, present or future for the reader, other times I'm responding to something of myself. It's a very meta project, if you think about it: one act of writing, inspiring an act of reading, in turn inspiring another act of writing that will be read. It's a conversation, don't you think? That's what all of publishing is: one long response to everything else that's ever been written, read, felt, lived, to infinity.
ME: You and the Kobo Events Team (and a camera crew) took over the subway system this past Monday and gave 100 lucky readers Kobo Touch eReaders, what was going through your mind?
JULIE: I'm a fairly outgoing person, but it's only when I'm placed in a position where I have to perform that I remember, "Right. I'm outgoing in my close circles!" And you'd think that as someone who goes around creating stories about people reading in public, you might think that to approach them was a natural next step. But it was so NOT. I am the most cautious, considerate driver/passenger/movie-goer you'll meet. I still walk single file on the sidewalk. I do not head out into the world looking to disrupt. So this whole campaign really too me far out of my comfort zone.
But I believed in it. Beyond the self-promo, I really believed in it. And you were there, you saw the faces of the people who received the Kobo Touch eReaders.
It was like, "What, You want to reward me just for reading?" But the underscore was something more like, "What? You even noticed I was reading?" It felt wonderful. And, Sonya! Can you imagine how it felt to look these people in the eye and tell them I'd written a book about readers just like them? It was like going to a family reunion. In every case I could, I walked back to ask the reader if we'd freaked them out. Were they OK? And in every case, they reiterated how thrilled they were, and then almost instinctively showed me what they were reading.
So, as far as things go, to hop on a subway and cause a raucous in the name of reading?? My mind is STILL reeling! (And thank you for being there to witness it all!)
ME: It was a blast! Wouldn't have missed it for the world!
SEEN READING is available in bookstores now and can be downloaded for eReaders. Visit the website for more information at www.seenreading.com
Visit Kobo Books to download now at www.kobobooks.com
Add your own reading sightings to the growing tally on Twitter using the hashtag #seenreading
About Julie Wilson:
Julie is "The Book Madam", a self professed "professional publishing fan" living in Toronto and working in media and publishing. She's the past Online Marketing Manager for House of Anansi Press, past Host of the CBC Book Club, and present host of 49thShelf.com. Her writing has appeared in or at: The National Post, The Globe and Mail, CBC.ca, Taddle Creek, Maisonneuve. The online component of Seen Reading has been featured on or at: CBC ("Here and Now," "Q"), The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, The Galley Cat and more.
Thanks to Julie Wilson, the Kobo Events Team (and my new found friend!) for inviting UrbanMoms along for the ride! READ ON!