How to read in the city

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  • A reader in Central Park. Photo: Kristin Wall, via flickr

  • At the Strand. Photo: Marco, via flickr


On trains, in cafes and browsing bookstores: tips and tricks for Manhattan word nerds

By Madeleine Thompson

Let’s assume I live to be 85. This is slightly higher than the average life expectancy for a white, American female but, hey, dream big. At 24, that gives me 61 more years to pursue and enjoy my favorite pastime: reading. In order to make books even more of a priority in my life, I made a resolution this year to read a book every single week, and I’ve been chronicling my (so far successful) efforts online. Let’s now assume that I continue reading a book a week until my death, which I imagine will be the result of a collision with an adult man going 35 mph on a razor scooter. That means I have slightly fewer than 3,200 books left in this life.

Keeping my resolution has required carving out time where there wasn’t any before. I don’t watch as much TV as I used to — definitely a good thing — and I’ve even ventured into audiobooks, which I wasn’t a huge fan of before. One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced has been New York City itself. Loud, crowded and fast-moving, the city can make it seem like the only decent place to read is in your own home. But that doesn’t seem to hinder all the people I see reading on trains, in cafes and browsing bookstores for their next pick. (According to a 2016 article on the website Quartz, New York City has the sixth most bookstores per capita globally, first among cities in the U.S., with 10 for every 100,000 people. That’s more than 800 total.) So, like other word nerds living here, I’ve had to adapt. You can, too, if it bothers you that you could go to your grave without actually finishing “The Power Broker.” Here are some tips and tricks:

Always pack a book

Waiting on line is practically a second job for New Yorkers, whether at Trader Joe’s or at the post office, and you never know when you’ll have an extra 15 or 20 minutes to flip some pages. When that time does arrive, it would be disappointing not to be able to make the most of it.

Headphones are your friend

My apartment may be the best place I know of to read, due to the presence of comfortable chairs, etc, but it’s not always the quietest. Roommates, nearby construction and the neighboring elementary school can all be counted on to disturb the peace. Thus, I recently invested in some noise-cancelling earbuds, and if things get too loud I’ll put them in and play some white noise on my phone. Ah, blessed silence. A good pair of headphones can also be useful if you can’t hear your audiobook over the screeching and clacking of the subway.

Use your local library

The other day I discovered something so exciting I squealed at my desk: the New York Public Library system lets you borrow ebooks and then download them to your Kindle. I knew they had a vast collection of ebooks to lend out, but I didn’t know I could get them on my Kindle, which is where I do most of my reading these days. I promptly downloaded a YA series I loved as a kid. A significant bonus to library books is also, obviously, that they’ll save you money. If you’re a compulsive book-buyer like me, try to train yourself to look at the library’s catalogue first to see if what you want is available to borrow. They also have audiobooks!

Read however you want

Phone? Tablet? Audiobook? Kindle? Great. Amazing. I read on all these devices at various points depending on what is closest/most convenient. I also have a very decent collection of physical books. My point is, don’t let anyone tell you it only counts if you read on paper. Your crowded, rush-hour commute may not allow for you to open up a hardback, but your phone is the perfect size to prop against the backpack invading your personal space. Someone reading a physical tome doesn’t get to feel superior if they’re reading at half your rate. Keep doin’ you.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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