I noticed a new Thing at my local tube station this week – somebody has started a book exchange. Inside the station, just before the ticket gate, there’s a bookcase, about three-quarters full. It seems to run on an honor system and I guess the idea is that you take a book to amuse you during your journey and leave one in exchange.
For those of you who’ve never been to London, the tube (subway) here has been running since 1863, and while for many commuters it’s the most efficient way to get to and from central London (passengers take more than four million journeys per day), nobody would call it the most pleasant. In rush hour it’s hot, sweaty, smelly, and crowded with stressed, cranky workers.
For the curious, click here for a great article from The Independent full of fabulous facts about the first 150 years of the Tube. Possibly my favorite, in a grim kind of way, are the ‘Nature’ snippets:
- It has been estimated that around half a million mice are living around the Underground network; and
- The mosquitoes that live in the tube tunnels have evolved into a unique species known for its voracious biting, and named culex pipiens molestus. Click here for a BBC Earth article about research into its evolutionary history.
As you may imagine, traveling the tube in rush hour is not the time to see the British at our courteous best. I love the idea of offering commuters something better than playing with their phone or snarling at their neighbors – a surprise, an escape, a hit of happy that would carry over into positive interactions with their fellow wage-slaves when they get to work.
I had a look at the titles on offer in the book exchange and found myself profoundly uninspired, though I decided that the next time I go into town, I’ll spend my forty-ish minute journey reading something from the shelf, even (especially?) if it doesn’t immediately float my boat.
I also spent a happy hour wondering what I would add to the collection to brighten the journey of some lucky North Londoner.
Here are my top three choices, with reasons:
Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Late to the party as usual, I read this recently and absolutely loved it. The story of two sixteen year-old misfits living in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s. They meet on Eleanor’s first day at a new school, and their daily journey together on a school bus full of bullies and cliques is gradually transformed from a test of survival, through a tentative friendship, to a beautiful love story.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, by David Nobbs
A brilliant, hilarious, subversive, quintessentially English novel, first in a trilogy published in the 1970s, about a middle-aged middle manager who’s driven to desperate behavior by the pointlessness of his suburban life, his daily commute, and marketing job. He daydreams, Walter Mitty style, but also acts on his fantasies. Eventually he fakes his own death, precipitating a fabulous chain of unintended consequences. I’m pleased to confirm that the trilogy is currently available as an e-book in all the usual places, and in audiobook format at the end of this month. The story was also made into a highly successful TV series, written by the author and based on the book, but somewhat lighter in tone.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
Described by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best 20 travel books of all time. A beautifully written autobiographical tale, first published in 1958, describing the author’s hatred of his soul-sucking job at a London couture fashion house, and his impulsive decision to give up the rag trade and go adventuring in the Nuristan mountains of Afghanistan. The first two chapters, entitled “Life of a Salesman” and “Death of a Salesman,” never fail to put a smile on my face.
Do you have any tips and tricks for emerging from the daily commute in an uplifted frame of mind?
Better still, do you have any titles to add to my Great Escapes library?