Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Profile of Seen Reading

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Profile of Seen Reading

For over two and half years, I've been tracking the reading habits of Toronto transit riders at SeenReading.com. I've been called a curator, a literary voyeur, a creep and the "Gossip Girl of the Book World." I do it for love; for kicks. And because I also work in the industry, I appreciate that publishing is a tough gig, and people at all levels deserve visibility and to know that their books are being bought and read.

Primarily, though, I do it to celebrate the reader.

The why, where, when, and how of Seen Reading is fairly well known by now: I describe the reader, note the page number of the book they're reading, research the passage at a local bookstore and then fashion a response in the form of a small piece of fiction, an imagining of who the reader might be, could have been or once was.

As I make my way into the office each day, surrounded by countless readers, I've long since relaxed into the exercise, allowing myself to discover each reader as I did the first, a woman who abruptly left a pub declaring, "This isn't the right place," as she patted the page and closed the book. "I don't know how to say goodbye to this character." She was reading A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. As she stepped into the sunlight, I couldn't help but wonder about the relationship between text and reader. One has such authority over the other, yet it's the reader who will decide when and where to let the story in. Then I got on the subway and took a good look around.

[F]or many, the commute is the only scheduled alone time they'll have all day. If you're like the woman I see who, each week, is 50 pages deeper into another book, or the man whose weathered copies of science fiction novels betray multiple readings, it's just as likely that the book you're carrying bears the splatter of last night's dinner, or the crumbs of this morning's breakfast, even the vague odour of your bed sheets, or your partner's cologne . . . [I]n the very moment I happen to glance upon you as you turn the page, your eyes are just about to scan a string of words you've never seen, or words you know by heart. Your synapses will fire, and you will make endless connections of meaning, most of which won't register on any significant level. Some, however, will stop you short and take you to some past, present, or wishful future – a narrative of your own design. With each reading, a book's value increases as each reader's interpretation fills every last inch of the page. And that is what makes the act of reading kind of miraculous. -- from "The secrets of a well-worn book," Globe Books

When does a sighting begin? When I first started the project, I hoarded each one like tissue up my sleeve, or the bloated bag of dead batteries my grandmother refused to throw out. I approached every sighting like a specimen to be pinned to cork, assessed, and my job was to report back to you, the reader. Caucasian male. 30s. Blue jeans. Riding eastbound on the Bloor Line. I saw you. You were reading. But who was I kidding? I enjoyed the excuse to look a little longer. I'm considerate. I have a code, and strict rules of engagement: I do nothing to impact your experience, nothing to take you out of the story. I respect your space as if you were sleepwalking. A few weeks into the project, it became apparent that there would never be a shortage of readers. More liberating, perhaps, was the reality that I would rarely, if ever, see a duplicate sighting.

Well over 400 entries into the project, my favourite sightings release me completely from any urge to dig for a pen. The other day I looked up from the tips of my winter boots, eye to eye with a man who had just stepped out of the line on the Spadina Station streetcar platform. He was large, slightly dishevelled, and wearing a blue parka and steel toed work boots. I immediately cast him as Urban Lumberjack. Looking closer, I saw that his pants had at one time been heavy, all weather, now threadbare. The hem of his jacket was torn, and his hair and beard were not purposefully kept, but growing in from a rough shave. That he was so clearly distraught drew my interest. That as he paced the length of the line, his nose was buried in a book, even more so. That he was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer took the sighting to new heights, out of the realm of a typical entry. I turned my attentions instead to a woman reading the latest Gladwell, one glove off to turn the pages, the pink skin of her iPod peaking out from her winter jacket, and I wondered, Does this project really need to go on? That night, as I stood crushed in the fingertip of the last subway car, of the nine people standing near me, five were reading. Number six had twigged to it too. Number seven deboarded the train, a stream of words running from head, to mouth, to fingers fidgeting to loosen a pen cap. norarobertspatriciacornwellthreecupsofteawhitewomanblackwomanasianmale

All in a day's work.

Julie Wilson spots readers in the wild Monday to Friday at SeenReading.com. She lives and works in Toronto.


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Seen Reading will be available at shortcovers in March.

3 comments

Hey David,

I did recently order one of those Listen In devices. In truth, I was curious to see what it's range is like, but perhaps you've given me another idea. (Disclaimer: No, I don't plan to listen in on everyone's conversations. Promise.)

In lieu of super secret spy gadgets, there's that game Headbandz. You could prominently display what you're listening to in clear view, and I'd be sure to catch it. You don't feel left out, and I get another sighting. Deal?

How are you liking the audiobooks, anyhow? It's such a pleasure to be read to. Hey, you could be listening to *my* podcast. Back this up a bit. So, you get one of those Headbandz headbands. "Listening to Seen Reading." Not only would I "sight" you, I'd buy you dinner!

I'm not sure there is a great solution. Headbanz might make me a touch self-conscious. I kind of liked shouting out the name of the book(twice, in proper TTC style) at each stop, but that might be awkward if I was listening to 'Vile Bodies' or 'In the Devil's Snare'.

Audiobooks are wonderful. I always hated cassette tapes, and found cds a bit clunky. What I do now is get TPLibrary cd audiobooks, rip them to mp3s, then use the free utility, the perfectly named 'MP3 to iPod Audio Book Converter'. That is a bit of work, but the iPod remembers where I am in the book and it's all one file.

There are lots of other pay and free audiobook sites on the web too of course. When I'm feeling extravagant some day, I'll get an Audible subscription. They advertise on podcasts too, at least for TWIT.

I did subscribe to the Seen Reading podcast and am eagerly looking forward to listening to all of them. I'll definitely be looking around the subway car as I listen...

I'm feeling left out. I've been listening to audiobooks on my nano on the TTC for a couple of months now. That really helps me with the noisy chatterboxes who usually settle about 8 inches from my head. It is amazing when you walk too. No crashes.

But I'm being ignored by Seen Reading. You probably think I'm listening to Monteverdi or Keith Urban, maybe a podcast on home renovation, but I'm not!

I'm listening to BOOKS, this week by Fareed Zakaria and Marilynne Robinson, and it's like you don't even care.

What should I do? Wear a little card taped to my chest showing what I'm 'reading'? Shout out the title every stop? Let me know what works for you.

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