A nice NY Times story by Alexis Mainland about New Yorkers and their subway reading. One sample:

B train at 96th Street, 10 a.m.
To learn the Talmud, many of its students read one of its 2,711 pages each day. And it helps to have a chevruta, or study partner. Harry and David Zinstein, brothers from Washington Heights, generally conduct their Daf Yomi — page of the day, in Hebrew — study sessions en route to work on the Upper West Side.
Except on Wednesday, which turns out to be a kind of day of rest for Harry, the elder of the two Zinsteins at 28. A manager at Mike’s Bistro, a kosher restaurant on West 72nd Street, Harry Zinstein forgoes his subway Talmud study those days to read the Dining section of The New York Times.
“It’s the only thing I read on the train except for the Talmud,” he said, his thick, leather-bound Babylonian text tucked inside his messenger bag for later consumption. “And it’s the perfect length for the commute.”
David Zinstein, 19, who is studying in Israel but spent the summer working for his brother, sat to the right, reading his Aramaic tractates (with English translations). “I always read the Talmud on the subway,” he said. “Even on Wednesdays.”

Makes me nostalgic.


  1. If you miss a day on Day Yomi do you make it up next day? Otherwise you fall behind your study buddy.

  2. A few years ago CBC Radio had a regular short feature called (I think) Subway Book Reviews. The reporter travelled on the subway in Toronto interviewing readers about the book they were holding, so those people gave the reviews and recommendations. Many of the subway readers were reading novels, but some were studying for courses or for self-improvement, often in unlikely subjects. It was fun to listen to for a while, but it was not a program that could last for too long, and one day it wasn’t there anymore.

  3. @Molly: Yes, there is a “global” order of reading the Daf Yomi. the current cycle began about four years ago, and the practice is to have all world Hebrews synchronize their reading.
    see for more.

  4. I was speaking one with a Ukrainian fellow on the diminished popularity of chess in the former USSR, and he made the observation that intellectual activity is down everywhere. “30 years ago, when you rode the metro in Kyiv or Moscow, everyone was reading something.” No, no one is.

  5. John Emerson says

    Yes, there is a “global” order of reading the Daf Yomi. the current cycle began about four years ago, and the practice is to have all world Hebrews synchronize their reading.

    Let’s avoid claims about global conpiracies, please.

  6. Christopher,
    instinctively, I would agree with the Ukrainian fellow’s observation. Which is why I was so surprised to see how many of my fellow commuters on the 63 bus line have brought their books. It’s not a school line, so we don’t get that many school books. And although Harry Potter and that MP-turned-author remain the most popular reading material, you will see a lot of other stuff – computer language textbooks (a lot of Ajax and Ruby recently, wonder what that means), self help books, historical fiction (Waltari twice last week), English textbooks and grammars and the occasional Bible or prayer book. The most memorable reader, however, was a very attractive young lady reading a Hungarian translation of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” about two weeks ago.
    No, no one is.
    Really? Not even the occasional sports magazine or tabloid?

  7. that MP-turned-author
    Really, they read A.P. Herbert, or did you mean John Buchan? Surely not Hillaire Belloc? Disraeli’s novels, no kidding. Oh I see, you meant Pepys’s diaries? John Donne? Aah not … Jeffrey Archer!

  8. Aah not … Jeffrey Archer!
    I distinctly remember writing “MP-turned-author”, not “former-MP-turned-author”, much less “convicted-criminal-turned author”, so no, not Jeffrey Archer.

  9. not “former-MP-turned-author”…
    And not “author-turned-former-MP,” so I guess Gyles Brandreth’s The Joy of Lex is out of the running too…

  10. so no, not Jeffrey Archer.
    That’s a relief. Somehow I didn’t have you down as an Archer fan.
    I read Michael Crick’s biography of him a few years ago, having nothing else to read at the time, and was surprised to realize that his wife was someone that I used to admire (from afar) when we were both students of chemistry.

  11. I’ve often wondered if there’s something you could be reading (or appear to be reading) on the N.Y. subway whose prominent & visible title would be so outre or offputting that people would tend to avoid sitting down next to you. Could be useful to know, although I haven’t started (at least deliberately) conducting experiments.
    My most memorable observation in this line of the last few years was not on the subway but on a Metro-North train heading into Grand Central, where I was trying to figure out the language of the book being read by a young woman sitting across the aisle. Latin alphabet, few or no diacriticals, nothing looked at all familiar even in terms of “shape” (e.g. I can’t read a word of Hungarian but I know what it generally looks like and this wasn’t it). But there were a lot of what looked like comically misspelled Romance-looking words. Maybe Albanian? There are a lot of Albanians in the NYC area and maybe they would have a lot of Italian loanwords they spell funny? Then the awful truth dawned. It was Esperanto. Even worse, I scribbled down the title of the book (now forgotten) and googled it when I got to work, whereupon it turned out to be a relic of the Soviet Esperantist movement, being the Esperanto translation of some standard collection of Bolshevik campfire songs and the like every young person afflicted with Sovietism would have been exposed to in Russian (or whatever if in a minority-language area) if they’d been in the Young Pioneers.

  12. “‘I’ve often wondered if there’s something you could be reading (or appear to be reading) on the N.Y. subway whose prominent & visible title would be so outre or offputting that people would tend to avoid sitting down next to you.”
    I have innocently sat in the subwayreading “The Lesbian Poets’ by Denys Page until a friend kindly clued me in that others might understand the title differently than I (or the author) did.

  13. John Emerson says

    I once spent two hours on the bus sneaking peeks at what I’m pretty sure was an Amharic Bible.
    Off Topic: For those who collect cranky theories, David Law’s “From Samaria to Samarkand: The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” is a must-read. It matches and indeed surpasses Ethel G. Stewart’s “The Dene and Na-Dene Indian Migrations 1233 A.D. : Escape from Genghis Khan to America”.
    Law’s book actually verges on the plausible in many places, given how little we understand or know of the history of the Jews or Persian-Hebrew relationships before Josiah or so. But then he veers of. But then he veers off into craziness….

  14. komfo,amonan says

    NYT recently conducted an online poll about what its website readers read on the subway. No surprises.
    By observation I would guess the most common book read on the subway would be the New Testament.
    And as far as don’t-sit-next-to-me books, I’d guess “Mein Kampf” or “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” would do it, although I’ve never had that experience. Then again, if someone obviously Jewish were reading these, I’d be ok sitting next to them.

  15. When I was a medical student studying on the 6 train I had my Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy open to the pelvis and perineum section. I didn’t do that again.

  16. The most exotic book I’ve ever seen while on public transport was a Bible in Javanese – it appeared to be facing-page Javanese and Latin script. The only reason I was able to identify it with any hope of being right was because the young lady reading it got into difficulties and requested my help as a fellow passenger. (She had been sold a phone card at an exorbitant price that had nowhere near the value required to call home (Java) and inform her relations that she was not dead. There’s more to the story, but suffice it to say that she was on the level.)

  17. and was surprised to realize that his wife was someone that I used to admire (from afar) when we were both students of chemistry.
    Ah, the fragrant Mary ….

  18. michael farris says

    I have the impression that more people read on mass transportion (including trains and planes) in Poland than used to. I remember in the early to mid 90’s and I was usually the only person reading anything (Polish people tend to think of reading as serious business you engage in only the safety of your own home).A lot more people (all ages) seem to read now.
    I remember a couple of times people noticing Hungarian textbooks I was reading most memorably by a young guy with dual Polish Hungarian family ties who was happy to see someone learning his other language. He explained he almost decided to do a second major in Hungarian philology (since he could reasonably finish the five year course in three) but decided it wouldn’t mix well with his first major (English philology).

  19. I appreciate it’s going to be different for cultures where religious study is viewed as more routine and creditable, but around here, reading the Bible on the bus would be viewed as ostentatious if not neurotic.

  20. I was trying to figure out the language of the book being read by a young woman sitting across the aisle.
    That reminds me of the time I had the reverse experience. After my divorce I plunged into the study of Georgian as a distraction (and a very effective one it was, I might add), and I was sitting on the subway with a Georgian text when a young woman finally couldn’t bear her curiosity any more and asked me what language it was. She was quite attractive, and theoretically it would have been a perfect opportunity to get into a conversation and perhaps get her phone number, but as I recall I just looked up, doubtless with a dazed air, and said “Georgian” before returning to my book. Divorce messes you up, kids; don’t try this at home!

  21. hat,
    reminds me of all the train rides I took back at the college and then grad school. The train was usually packed with college students which meant that in every car, there were at least five girls who could give the models of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition a run for their money. Me with my Arabic manuscripts, Hebrew grammars, Finnish novels and Syriac texts, I always ended up sitting next to one of them. Every time, somewhere after the first 30-40 minutes of a five-hour journey, one of them would ask what it is I was reading or what language those funny squiggles were. Every time I would look up, stammer out an answer and then returned to whatever I was reading. Two of those times there was just me and the girl having an entire compartment to ourselves. Yeah, I’m a loser.

  22. @Ray G., Manhattan must be a hotbed of old-fashioned religious fervor compared to Devonshire, because Bible-reading on the subways here (I try to avoid the bus) is ubiquitous, albeit more common with some demographics than others.

  23. Not the subway but:
    There is a coffeeshop/bookshop in Beijing called the Bookworm. Last year I often went there with my books and tried to learn the Mongolian alphabet. Since it was obviously much more exotic than Chinese, on several occasions the person opposite would get curious and ask what language it… unfortunately none of them young and female 🙁

  24. J.W.Brewer: it is, as you say, probably down to demographics. It was common enough to be unremarkable in Birmingham, where we used to live (there were a lot of Afro-Caribbean evangelical churches there). Here, it’d be a sign of being weirdly fervent.

  25. Personally I would try to stay far away from anyone on the NY subway reading Dan Brown, but that may be just me.

  26. On the subway or anywhere else, actually.

  27. John Emerson says

    Actually, I believe that someone from The Exile did a test of this by ostentatiously reading a book on the bus which described the best ways of disposing of dead bodies, or the best ways to kill someone untraceably, or some other Exile-appropriate book from Feral House Press.

  28. Honestly. You lot would think that just reading the right wrong book will deter people from sitting next to you. The most effective deterrent is to behave as if you’re about to throw up.

  29. A necklace of garlic helps too.

  30. Here in Nottinghamshire, UK, I would be very surprised to see someone reading the Bible on the bus or train. I don’t think I ever have. Mind you, where I live, people mainly read the paper if anything. Not many people I see read books.

  31. I can’t read on the bus (it causes motion sickness) but I can on a train. On a subway or a commuter train I would probably not take a book: the trip is too short, so with an interesting book you have to be careful not to get so engrossed in it that you miss your stop, then you have the frustration of having to stop in mid-sentence or at least mid-chapter when you reach your destination. Books are for long airplane flights. Reading the Bible or other traditional text that you probably know already would be easier, because it is broken up in small sections that don’t take much time to read but that you can continue to think about, and you are probably refreshing your memory rather than reading the text for the first time. But books of short stories are good for short trips, as are magazines. A newspaper is not convenient on public transportation: even if you fold it up to just show the piece you want to read (or the crossword puzzle), you have to unfold it to full 2-page spread in order to read something else, and so does your seatmate (it is worse on an airplane with those rows of 3 or 4 passengers – fortunately not everyone likes to read newspapers).

  32. New Yorkers have a technique of moving through the NYT while keeping it folded vertically, with one hand while the other hangs onto the strap; you see it transplanted up here to Boston, too.

  33. Very interesting, MMcM! I don’t know if I have ever been in the NY subway, and definitely not in the Boston one, so I have no idea how they manage to do it.

  34. so I have no idea how they manage to do it
    The Chicago Sun Times is a tabloid sized newspaper that was a favorite of commuters because of its size–it was easy to read standing up on the train by folding it in half lengthwise as the pages were turned and refolded, half a page at a time. It always had the late Mike Royko’s column right inside the front page. Royko used to write scathing columns about Rupert Murdoch, not using his name, but only referring to him as The Alien. When Murdoch bought the Sun Times, Royko switched to the Chicago Tribune and so did I. The Trib is harder to fold–it’s a standard size paper and you read it standing up by folding half of the page over the long way so several entire columns are visible at a time.

  35. Alas, I have no idea what people are reading on the New York subway — I’m too immersed in my current book or article.

  36. I have innocently sat in the subwayreading “The Lesbian Poets’ by Denys Page until a friend kindly clued me in that others might understand the title differently than I (or the author) did.
    HEE. The joke about being a student of ‘Lesbian Poetry’ never gets old.
    I think I probably do things like this regularly and mostly unconciously… but once I was reading Werner & Lüscher’s Kleine Einführung ins Hieroglyphischen-Luwische on a rather packed bus and at one point I started to read the cuneiform band around one of the seals in the book… so I’m rotating this book around to follow the Hittite cuneiform part of seal… and then when I’m holding the book upside-down, it struck me that the other bus patrons might be thinking that what I was doing might be rather odd.
    I continued reading nevertheless.

  37. Late for this thread, but a historical anecdote that nonetheless should fit (just surfaced in my memory from some book I’ve read in the last three or four years but haven’t taken the time to track down). Narrator is riding on a newfangled railroad train somewhere in the Ottoman-ruled Balkans in the late 19th century, reading a Turkish translation of some French novel (this is before Turkish had switched alphabets). Narrator needs to attend to something else for a moment, so sets the book down on the seat next to him, open and upside down so he doesn’t lose the page. At this point the other fellow in the compartment (elderly peasant, unlikely to be literate) looks at the narrator disapprovingly, picks up the book, kisses it, and sets it gently up on the luggage rack out of harm’s way, saying something like “My son, it is praiseworthy for those who have the gift of reading to study the Holy Koran, but you ought to treat the sacred book with more reverence.”

  38. I believe I know just where you read it.

  39. John Emerson says

    This reminds me of Elias Cannetti’s train story, which was told to him as a child to encourage him to learn as many languages as possible. The hero of the story (most likely a Bulgarian Jew) was riding a train when he noticed two sinister Greeks muttering sinister things to each other in Greek. But fortunately, the traveler understood Greek! The two Greeks were laying plans to rob one of the other passengers and perhaps kill him, but the traveler was able to foil the plot! The way Canetti told the story, it seemed that in those parts this story was a stereotypical bit of folk wisdom. (My understanding is that in the Balkans and Caucasus, a normal functional adult male would be at least trilingual, the languages depending on where he lived.
    As for Turkish translators (dragoman is the word often used), the d’Ohsson family must be mentioned. The name is ersatz Franco-Swedish; the family’s original Armenian or Turkish name was Mouradgea or thereabouts. As I remember the story, one of them signed up with Karl XII when Karl was interned in Turkey, and returned to Sweden with him. Later members of the family wrote in French about the Middle East; Constantin Mouradgea d’Ohsson’s 150-year-old history of the Mongol Empire, based on Persian texts, is still referenced now and then (which is testimony primarily to the glacial pace of Persian studies.)

  40. Well, I should obviously be commended on my reading habits, and am glad I didn’t waste time poking around the early chapters of The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success to see if that’s where I got it from from. So let me meet the Cannetti story with a more recent situation from the Paris Metro (vulgar language necessary to make the point, relevant anecdote begins at the end of the linked blogpost, beginning with the sixth-or-so paragraph marked with an asterisk — the silent narrator who did not disclose his own knowledge of Wolof was a college classmate of the blogger and myself):

  41. That’s a great story—here‘s the direct link.

  42. Who knows, maybe the woman spoke Waloof too.

  43. Doesn’t everyone?

  44. I wish.

  45. I wish.

  46. I wish the world spoke Wolof,
    How wonderful ‘twould be!
    ‘Twould wipe my dusty soul off
    To hear such harmony.

  47. And if they can’t speak Wolof
    (Though it doesn’t seem hard to me)
    Then perhaps they all could troll off
    And learn instead to speak Twi

  48. David Marjanović says

    You can see people reading the Koran here in Paris. (Easy to recognize even from outside, because it tends to have a zipper.) Nobody reads the Bible; any kind of Christian reading material is extremely rare.
    Me, I usually read the latest issue of Systematic Biology or the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology… or, when I’m in Vienna, comics.

  49. David Marjanović says

    From the previous thread:

    Japanese street maps use swastikas (“backwards” or clockwise ones) to indicate the location of Buddhist temples, just as a European street map might use a cross to indicate the location of a church.

    I’ve seen a historical atlas produced in the West doing that.

    those x’s and +’s with the wheeling telomeres on them

    I love mixed metaphors. And molecular-biology metaphors. 🙂

    the German (and English) ‘swastika’.

    This word is never used in German. It’s Hakenkreuz “hook cross” all the way.

  50. Terry Collmann says

    I was on an Underground train in London once reading the music magazine Mojo and a Japanese man leaned across and asked me what the magazine was about. In Japanese, he told me, “mojo” means “sock”, as in what you put on your foot, and he was momentarily puzzled by a magazine that seemed to him to be about coverings for pedal extremities …

  51. Odd, I can’t find such a word in a brief glance through my dictionaries; ‘sock’ is kutsushita, and my Kenkyusha does not list a “mojo.”
    How on earth did you explain the title to him? It would be hard enough with an English speaker who wasn’t familiar with the concept!

  52. John Emerson says

    Mojo should explainable in many languages by their versions of “mana”, etc., which is a kind of extra power that infuses some people / things at some times. It strikes me as likely that the word comes from a Afro-Haitian-creole-conjure source. By my guess, first it was applied to some form of music from the New Orleans area, and then appropriated by honky music buffs. (So the contemporary meaning is a bit debased or diverted.)
    My bet is that there’s a Japanese equivalent, probably from Shinto, but that it may not have suffered the later extensions of meaning.

  53. Goin’ down to Louisiana, get me a mojo hand. More here: Do Mr. Emerson’s credentials as a Perfect Polymath not extend to stock references in old blues lyrics?

  54. The scholarly disquisition referenced in the prior comment missed an early extended use, namely “mojo wire” for the Xerox telecopier (an intermediate technology between the old telex and the now-itself-getting-obsolete fax machine), which was used by (and perhaps coined by) the late Hunter S. Thompson no later than some time in the early 1970’s.

  55. John Emerson says

    Basically, I don’t have a source for a link between the music usage and my conjectured “voodoo” usage. But I’m pretty sure it’s there.

  56. Odd, I can’t find such a word in a brief glance through my dictionaries; ‘sock’ is kutsushita, and my Kenkyusha does not list a “mojo.”

    While I don’t know Japanese, I did remember that the famous toe-socks are called tabi, and wondered if “mojo” referred to some other type of particular sock.
    Searching Wikipedia for that term brought up other terms for Japanese footwear, but nothing useful.
    However, googling for “mojo socks” suggests that “mojo” refers to a knitted sock with a particular raised pattern of knitted ridges. Perhaps these are originally Japanese, or are more popular in Japan?
    Or perhaps Terry Collmann’s interlocutor was a knitter, or the spouse of a knitter.

  57. Well, Wikipedia gives the word 喪女, pronounced mojo, as an Internet slang word for an unattractive girl or woman, the type that fails to excite interest in the opposite sex. It refers to a girl who has no boyfriend and is a virgin. There are implications of being a loser and lacking in confidence or sparkle.
    Nothing to do with socks, though.

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