When I picture myself reading, I’m tucked into a fluffy bed with a hot cup of tea on a nightstand stacked high with books, all with perfectly intact bookmarks. My bedroom is bathed in a dim, cozy light while a howling thunderstorm rages outside. My cat is curled up, purring at my feet. Think hygge on steroids.
The reality looks more like me squashed up against several other people in a packed subway car barreling across the Williamsburg bridge. My phone is crushed beneath the contents of my purse, and my work day hasn’t started yet. I unglue my arms from my sides as I pry a book—usually a small paperback—from my bag and remove the CVS receipt I’ve been using as a placeholder. Right there, in the several inches of space in front of my face, I can settle in for a solid 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. If I’m lucky I can snag an empty seat, luring me into a dangerous period where I’m so comfortable and engrossed in my book that I miss my stop. Crying babies, loud talkers, and grouchy suits aggressively scrolling their smartphones become a blur as I crack open my book. It’s a far cry from my reading time daydreams, but it offers its own form of bliss.
My commute without a book is vastly different. Only a few cursed rides have taken place without a book, headphones, or companion to talk to. Those rides were fraught with anxiety, with no place to look (don’t make eye contact), no service to refresh my phone apps, and only my thoughts of urging the subway to move faster to keep me company. My worst fear was the subway getting stuck underground and having nothing except my claustrophobia to occupy my mind. “How could I forget my book?!” I’d berate myself. Without it, the stops took longer and the train moved slower, as though the conductor was teaching me a lesson in forgetfulness.
Thanks to COVID-19, those days—both good and bad—are gone. Along with my morning commute from Brooklyn to Chelsea, my built-in time devoted to reading has disappeared.
Now, the tyranny of free time rears its ugly head. The sacred (sometimes smelly) space that allowed me to deep dive into my crinkly library haul has disappeared—I have to carve out that time between the fluid hours of sleeping and sitting at my kitchen table to work. Books are always available and somehow never available.
These days, I try to read before and after my “work day” with a makeshift commute in the confines of my apartment. At first glance, that might seem better than what I had before—no exposure to the annoyances that burdened my underground commute (and I can wear pajamas). But uninterrupted WiFi means early morning emails to check, a creeping temptation to catch up on TV shows, and the irresistible pull of an endless Twitter scroll. As I find my dedicated reading time eroded by distractions, I long for the days of squeezing myself in between two people rubbing the sleep from their eyes to devote myself to a too-quick 30 minutes of my favorite hobby.
Don’t get me wrong: there were many days, especially cold or rainy days, that I would curse my commute and the exhausting bus-to-subway journey of it. But there to keep me company was another universe of characters that distracted me from the daily grind of my own world. A dreary slog transformed into a state of immersive entertainment when I opened my book in front of me.