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Hipster People Things and Other Subway Books

If you know me, you know that I consume books voraciously. If I were a Sesame Street character, I’d be the Book Monster (ARRGH, GIVE ME BOOOOKS!). In New York City, one of the great (or small?) pleasures of life is reading on the subway. In particular, it’s always rewarding to see the reactions that your selection du jour elicits from other passengers–like, “Who the hell still reads Freud?” or, “Oh, please, not another person pretending to be near the end of Infinite Jest…” or maybe, “Nabokov. Why is everybody so into Nabokov?” Not pointing any fingers here…

So, here is a list of my favorite subway reads for the moment:

1) Rich People Things, by Chris Lehmann: as the “unemployed leftist” named Moe Tkacik (she’s actually a New York-based writer) writes in the blurbs for the book, Lehmann’s target audience is likely “employees of used bookstores and/or independent coffee shops, people who don’t own televisions, people who do own televisions on which they occasionally watch Portlandia and other shows they are capable of enjoying with substantial reservations, people who commute to their titular jobs on bicycles they have owner for more than five years…” You get the picture: the book might as well be filed under the category of “hipster people things.” But don’t let Tkacik’s remark deter you: Rich People Things draws on Lehmann’s graduate education in history and rigorous research done while he wrote a regular column for The Awl about how the wealthy class props itself up with cultural institutions–and how we (the bicycle-riding, Portlandia-watching social class) are blind to it. It will make you angry, if you aren’t already, about the state of our country–but at least, it helps you know where to direct that anger. And it’s a great conversation starter while riding, oh, the L train (or, for some raised eyebrows, perhaps the 6 train uptown?).

2) Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber: who doesn’t know of Graeber now that he is practically the Occupy Wall Street figurehead (despite not wanting that fame at all)? Well, besides being a diligent, thoughtful anarchist activist, Graeber is a brilliant scholar, who has written various books on economic anthropology (his book on value is worth reading). The Debt book could not be more timely–this one will get you nods from around the subway, as people go, yeah, I think I know what that book’s about. His analysis is helpful and applicable to debt crises around the world, at the levels of policy, culture, and the individual–because debt is not just a financial or legal situation, it is a psychological and cultural condition that has a history. Five thousand years of it.

3) 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami: okay, this one might get you some trite looks–because everybody’s reading it. But I have to give it a mixed review. Murakami is incredibly artful at building characters who simultaneously emerge as real humans through meticulous details such as their daily diets and exercise regimens, depicted to the point where you feel like you went to high school with these people, and yet seem like well-designed mannequins in a department store, so true they must only be fake. The plot is ingenious–there are two separate stories that alternate by chapter–but I cannot be the only one who feels that the ending is simply a flop. There are plenty of loose ties, unsolved mysteries, that leave you wondering if the marathoner novelist got lazy near the finish line.

4) Literary Brooklyn, by Evan Hughes: not only delivers exquisite mini-biographies of some of the best-known writers to have called Brooklyn home–Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, Richard Wright, to name a few–but it is also a history of Brooklyn’s development that every Brooklynite can appreciate. Those of us who have moved here more recently cannot imagine the days when Boerum Hill, for example, was too dangerous to walk around, or when DUMBO was a seedy dump. Reading this book helps me to think about what it means to be a writer living in Brooklyn–materially broke, but surrounded by cultural richness. It also lets me see the Brownstone-lined streets I walk along in a different light, one that reveals why writers have always made these neighborhoods their home: because the proximity to Manhattan is just as important as the distance. And people who spot this book on the G or the L trains know exactly what I mean by that.

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