Reading on trains with strangers (or, the fragmented book club)

Stay in your own pocket.
Don’t make eye contact (damn it, I made eye contact.)
Are you attempting to start a conversation with your fellow commuter? Eugh. 

Why are these unspeakable offences on peak hour trains across Sydney? At times this can make life for ‘Have a chat Nat’ a struggle in self-discipline. Of course you can sit next to me, but expect me to ask how your day was. Don’t worry about bumping me with your over-sized baggage, but expect me to be curious about whether you are home bound or on holidays.

Here we have a diverse mix of individuals congregated in a shared space … and the above is some sort of unspoken code? It is a waste. Peak hour trains are the new artist studios and co-working spaces for those on the go. I have drafted more documents, brainstormed more adventures and meditated more than I probably have at my desk.

Put simply, how can we better connect on public transport?

Here are three spontaneous encounters I have had on the train thanks to reading or working.

  1. First, we make the beast beautiful by Sarah Wilson
    On a few occasions now I have found Sarah Wilson’s honest yet thoroughly researched book to be a great conversation starter for normalising how we talk about anxiety. Most recently, as I stepped off the train book still in hand, a stranger eagerly asked if the book is really that good. Apparently everyone is talking about this book, but there was a level of credibility in confirming its worthiness with a stranger. My answer is always an enthusiastic yes.

    Whether you are looking for solidarity (at times by laughing at the cruel ironies Wilson points out throughout the book) or know someone who experiences anxiety and are looking to better understand, First we make the beast beautiful is a valuable read. I was just stepping across to the other platform, but I got the sense that if I was actually exiting, my fellow commuter would have continued the conversation. I told her if I wasn’t still reading it, I would have just given it to her there and then.

  2. The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries
    This is one of those cult of entrepreneurship books. Everyone asks if you have read it and if you haven’t you just have to. After a friend highly recommended it for its everyday, relatable examples, I decided I would give it a go.I was sitting on a peak hour train and who I assume to be a university student reached across from the other side of the train to tap me on the shoulder. Trapped in an awkward lean, she whispered ‘excuse me, can I take a photo of your book cover?’ I was a bit too delighted. Yes conversation; ask me more. She didn’t want to know more or read the blurb. ‘I can just tell I am going to want to read that.’ Ok. Not as great as it could have been, but hey, here’s to inspiring others to read.

    Read more about The Lean Start Up here.

  1. I didn’t catch the title of the book
    A commuter across from me picked up a book, flicked through it before turning to his mate and said ‘who leaves books on the train?’ I know who – the book fairies. A little too excitedly I asked them to check the inside cover for the sticker which confirmed my assumption. They looked at me oddly. No, no you can’t pass it on to me, that is not how it works. You either have to take it and read it or leave it when you get off for another commuter to pick up. It was in their perplexed gaze – how could someone really be this excited over someone leaving a book on the train? It’s the share economy fellas! Pass or play!

Book fairies, book clubs and other book sharing groups are a great way to broaden your perspective and engage with people. Trains are the best place to have fragmented book clubs.

Your challenge: Break the silence barrier and ask a stranger what they are currently reading. If they are on Netflix, exchange your most recently viewed; Spotify-ers talk about your most listened to track. You never know where the conversation may lead. Break the silence of peak hour, unplug and talk with your fellow commuters. 

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