In my teens and twenties, I commuted between Brooklyn and Manhattan to school (Hunter College) and then to my first job and several thereafter. It was considered a rite of passage to be able to buy a copy of the New York Times, hop onto the subway car, fold the oversized tabloid to it’s most effective compact dimensions, and read it while holding the paper in one hand, and the overhead strap in another.

The trip was usually about an hour and a half with at least one transfer – and in that time, the subway car became both a study hall and a library where I continued cramming for exams or catch up literature or the daily news. My first encounter with Kerouac’s On The Road was on a subway train.

To this teenager’s eye, the newspaper readers seemed to be divided along class and financial lines – the NY Times to the eyeglass wearing intellectuals, the businessmen in suits, ties, and fedoras. The Daily News, a workingman’s paper, could be found in less pretentious hands among more casually dressed worker bees and sports fanatics, who, when leaving the train, would fold the paper up into a flat tube and stick it in a back pocket. The Times usually went into a briefcase.

The Daily News was Brooklyn. The Times was the world.

Then, with the paper done, the books would come out. Everything from popular fiction to learn-a-language, serious hardcover and more informal paperback. Stories being read and told if you just paid attention.

But with the onrush of e-readers, the underground environment for both reader, spectator, and observer has changed. Photographer Ourit Ben-Haim, has created the Underground New York Public Library where she documents that change along with photographs displaying the visual contrast of books, e-readers, smartphones, and tablets and how technology changes what you see and what you can imagine.

Excerpted from a chat she had with Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York:

JVNY: I’m most intrigued by the shots of the book readers seated next to screen scrollers. Do you seek out that juxtaposition in your photos, or does it just happen a lot?

OBH: …There’s a shift happening, people are switching over from print books to digital readers, and things will look different because of that. When a person with an eReader sits next to a person with a print book, the picture becomes a picture of this shift.

JVNY: So the story is “Real books are vanishing.” What do you think is lost from the subway experience when we lose real books to e-readers?

OBH: …The story I’m telling is about the reader. One aspect of this story is that eReaders are changing the reader. The devices, as they are designed right now, are nondistinct and impersonal to literature. This makes the reader less vulnerable. Riding the subway is a great opportunity in our day to look around and connect in spirit with various people…seeing what others are reading while riding. Books tell us where the reader is, in mind and in relation to the world.

…I look at people and I see a story, and just how I am is that I may care about strangers with their stories that I see on them. The reader, though, they have their story, and they have the story that they are holding, and sometimes it’s the fit of those stories, or the contrast, or the evident fantasy of it, that elicits a great feeling towards them.

[Full chat is here on Vanishing New York…]

When my wife and I go to tag and estate sales, the first thing we look for is books. They’re not only stories themselves, but tell stories about the readers who held them. Sometimes we see a mass of books on music, art, or mathematics and we imagine that the owners may have been both teachers and practitioners. Or maybe just fascinated with numbers, images and sounds. Who these readers were could be found as much in their books as in their forgotten photographs or abandoned greeting cards and letters.

Sometimes even the way the books were arranged, or the notes and news articles placed in between the pages as markers, tell other stories about the readers. Recipes, dedications, postcards – all create images of lives lived and discovered, real or imagined.

Books are community. E-readers are technology. A conflict that is now bearing fruit in attic spaces and storage rooms…and subways…

Photo by She Said Unprintable Things
The book being read is “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” by Mary Wollstonecraft