Victorians on the Subway

A couple of years ago, when we moved even further out in Brooklyn from the City Tech campus downtown, I decided I needed something of a project for my two hours daily on the subway. Reading the books I had skipped over… hmm… sounds good. I have a potpourri of nineteenth-century novels I had never gotten around to.

The first was Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. From there to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (not nineteenth-century, of course, but set there–I had not yet developed any sort of plan but was doing no more than picking books off the shelf). Next came Anthony Trollop’s The American Senator–and I decided I was ready for George Eliot. Middlemarch proved much more interesting than ever I would have expected (I had never cared for the one of her books I had read, The Mill on the Floss), so I followed it with Adam Bede, which enthralled me.

At that point, I realized I was establishing a pattern–and decided to go with it. The Victorian novel (loosely speaking) would become my subway reading fare. Dicken’s Domby & Son, Thackery’s Pendennis (among others), and I was on my way. Though I had studied Victorian literature in graduate school, I had merely followed instructor directions, never striking out on my own. Now, I would let serendipity establish the direction within the novels of the era.

My little stack of Victorians is wearing thin, however, and I began to worry what to do when it was finished. Martin Chuzzlewitz remains, a couple more Trollope and Silas Marner. Oh, and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. But not much more.

Fortunately, just as I was finishing Pendennis, my wife finally convinced me to buy a Kindle Fire.

Which I did, and immediately started loading it up with free books from Amazon and from Among them are more Thackery, among them The Newcomes and the novel I am reading now (and am embarrassed to admit never having read), Vanity Fair. When I told a colleague that I was loving the idea that I was reading Vanity Fair on the subway, hidden on my Kindle, she looked at me, puzzled. Then it dawned. At first, she thought I was speaking of the magazine.

Suddenly, I have a wealth of reading material, much of it so gripping that it is disorienting when I have to pull myself from the fictional worlds or miss my stop.

The digital revolution may have killed the book, but it certainly hasn’t hurt the novel.