“City reading,” or the reading matter of everyday life
By Megan on May 30th, 2012
I’ve lived in New York City for almost four years. Since moving here from the suburbs, many things about my life have changed; my primary mode of transportation, the square footage of my living space, the kinds of foods I eat, where I go and what I do with my friends, to name a few. These are natural changes to be expected when one relocates. But a recent assignment for a class I’ve been taking has made me think about how I’ve changed in another more subtle way: as a reader.
In New York, I have been exposed to so many wonderful new writers, indie bookstores, readings and events, and I credit it to living in a place that is overflowing with literary brilliance and energy. I think because of this—the knowledge I’ve consumed and the diversity of texts I’m reading—I have grown as a reader. But living in a major city has changed me as a reader in another way too, one that is very closely tied to the physical space I inhabit each day. I’ve become a city reader. Let me explain.
In 1998, an author by the name of David Henkin decided to investigate what it means to be a reader, and how space plays a fundamental role in how, why, and what we read. Henkin described the act of reading in the early nineteenth century as occurring silently, primarily indoors, and in solitude. He writes, “…it is worth observing how the familiar model implicitly relegates nineteenth‐century reading to the periphery of urban life by locating it indoors rather than outdoors and in seclusion rather than in the company of strangers. Reading appears in this model as a means of escaping from or coping with urban interactions (and social and economic life generally)” (Henkin, 6). In other words, he claims reading was an act of avoidance, done primarily alone and in silence. (And I have to admit that when reading a novel, this is precisely what I tend to do.) He calls this kind of reader a private reader.
But Henkin also defines a very different kind of reader, one that emerged with the expansion of many major cities, known as the “city reader.” The city reader reads as he walks, browsing and roaming about, taking in the many texts he encounters in the public space such as newspapers, bulletins, posters, street signs, advertisements, announcements, and so on. Henkin calls this “city reading,” or “the reading matter of everyday life.”
I realized that throughout the course of my day, I am similarly exposed to a wealth of texts that appear in an array of different forms. In my walk to work alone I see an incredible collection of words, phrases, and symbols: the “Fresh Bread Daily” sign outside Blue Ribbon Bakery, the weathered piece of notebook paper taped to one of my neighbor’s cars that reads “I can park here. I live here.,” the electric sign with “Wings, Ribs, Fries” that glows, even in daylight, from the bar on the corner. There’s the enormous Gucci advertisement painted on the brink facade of a Houston Street building, which features a glamourous woman on a motorcycle and reads “Get swept away.”
There’s a banner hung from two lampposts on Wednesdays and Fridays that looks like it’s made of burlap and reads simply “Flea Market. Join Us.” There are Lady Gaga concert tour posters stacked in rows like Warhol pop art, a hardware store sign with the words “We Copy Keys” made entirely out of keys, and ribbons of graffiti that adorn almost every corner. I pass an upside-down ”Wash and Dry” sign every day and want to turn it right-side up, and sometimes the bakery on Sullivan Street has a “Free Samples” sign tied to a basket filled with slices of pound cake or muffin for the taking. And just the other day I saw a hand-drawn “Welcome Home, Daddy” sign hanging in the window of an apartment on my block. You’d hardly notice many of them unless you were really looking.
And if one day I decide to change my route, as I often do, I’m met with a new thread of messages, each with a different function, tone, and aesthetic appeal. And the real beauty of it is that each one means something different to me than it does to the next passerby. Sometimes I remind myself how lucky I am to be free to roam a world that is humming with news and knowledge and art, and I try to make sure that when I walk, I’m looking up and out, not down at the ground. I mean, I wouldn’t want to miss those free samples…
So what about you? What kind of reader are you? Private, city, or both? Share it here.
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