I do most of my reading on my commute, which is long enough that I can generally read a book a week without breaking a sweat. To get to work (and then get home again) I take a streetcar, a subway, and a bus – the holy trinity of Toronto transportation. It can be tempting, sometimes, to complain about how long it takes, or how many transfers I have to make, or how I pretty much never get a seat, but really, it's an hour and half of designated reading time, and how can I complain about that? Sometimes people approach me to ask about what I'm reading – how I like a certain book, whether I would recommend it, how I found it, etc. – and I often glance up from the page to scope out what else is being read in the vicinity. Clearly, I am not the only one who does this, although, unlike Julie Wilson in her new book Seen Reading, I've never kept good enough notes to construct lives for my fellow transit readers.
Seen Reading is a book of microfiction – think one-page short stories – that is entirely inspired by the readers Wilson encounters on her own Toronto commute. She takes notes of the reader's gender and appearance, what book they're reading, and what page they're on, and then uses these details to build a small story, sometimes with a clear connection to something about their appearance and book choice, sometimes not. As a premise, it's gold, but in lesser hands this slim collection of stories would fall flat, or become repetitive. It's a definite testament to Wilson's imagination and the constraints of a one-page story that make Seen Reading an engrossing little collection.
The book is laid out so that Wilson's microfictions are on the left, facing the actual descriptions of the reader. In this way, if you don't cheat, you read the stories without the grounding of who the person is in real life. Thus, Wilson's stories about childhood, relationships, and brief encounters shape the way you see the reader, allowing you to wonder about their choice of purple scarf or novel. Many of Wilson's stories are incredibly intimate – very few have anything to do with commuting – and because she need not focus on anything outside a certain moment, she leaves you wondering what's happening just outside the frame, as well as where this person is going and why. Most people ask these questions based solely on someone's attire; that Wilson does so based on someone's reading choice is a delicious turnabout.
Beyond the stories, I was genuinely curious about what people were reading. Some books – Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci, for example – turned up numerous times. Then there were classics by Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Bronte, as well as a ton of books I'd never heard of. How do people find these books, I found myself wondering, suddenly transformed into that person who will lean across the aisle to me and ask the same question. This is, perhaps, the best kind of voyeurism, because even if you don't love it when someone reads over your shoulder, there really is no harm in doing so.
I read Seen Reading while commuting, which I thought was wholly appropriate. I saw people looking at my book; I looked at other people's books and started to imagine their lives. I also, if I'm being honest, wondered if I would turn up in Wilson's pages; I didn't, but I am curious whether any of her muses have recognized themselves. Commuting is one of the few places where our public and private lives overlap, even if we aren't aware of it. I see women applying makeup on the bus, overhear snatches of phone calls, see people sleeping, and of course see people reading, sometimes so absorbed in their books that they miss (or nearly miss) their stop (this has been me, on occasion). This colliding of worlds is great fuel for an open imagination like Wilson's, and makes Seen Reading a book that will appeal to far more people than fit in a Toronto subway car.
by Julie Wilson
First published 2012 (cover image from Freehand Books edition)