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Books for the Subway, Reading at Weddings

August 6, 2010 | by

Can you recommend any books that will make interesting people approach me if I read them on the subway? During A Moveable Feast, people came up and quoted entire passages verbatim, and it really enhanced the reading experience. —Alexandra Petri

The trick is to choose books that have cult followings, and so create a sense of secret fellowship—but that large numbers of your fellow-riders have actually read. That's why it depends somewhat on your subway line. As Philip Roth is to the Seventh Avenue trains, so Jonathan Lethem is to the F. For the Q I might carry either story collection of Edward P. Jones (impress your new friend by pointing out that the two collections are linked, story by story) or anything by Lipsyte or Shteyngart. (Each of whom is also beloved on the L.) On the Lexington Avenue line, The Transit of Venus. For the G train: War and Peace, A Dance to the Music of Time, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2666, Gravity's Rainbow, the complete works of James Michener, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, certain writers are good bets anywhere. Thanks to my bike, I have no particular subway, but I will instantly take a friendly interest in anyone I see reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Norman Rush's Mortals, IJ, anything by Adam Phillips, or the essays of Charles Lamb. Possession of these books is sufficient cause for me to ask which part you're at. Maybe for others too. All of which is to say: be careful what you wish for.

My best friend is marrying a silly man. It's not my place to intervene, but unfortunately my hostility toward him hasn't been particularly well-masked. She's asked me to read something at the wedding—the usual stuff will sound too insincere and the “I'm happy you're happy” approach, I fear, is too weak a euphemism for this particular occasion. Any suggestions for something wonderful and stirring and seemingly heartfelt and yet not altogether at odds with my belief that this is all a terrible mistake? —Rebecca

Ugh. Don't you hate this business of reading at weddings? Even under the best of circumstances, I'll never understand what's wrong with a toast. I love listening to toasts! Can you persuade your friend to change the rules? Then you can just go on about her, and how lucky this guy is. You'll never find a better audience for a toast than a wedding. All the laughter and tears, people actually mean them.

The wedding toast is one of the most vital folk rituals we have—more vital than the vows. But readings? Who ever can pay attention to the Song of Songs or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” or even “Having a Coke With You,” before the first glass of champagne? It helps, somewhat, if the thing is printed in the program. (It gives you something to read during the Bach.) And I think gay weddings should get a pass, if only for the excuse to hear Whitman's beautiful, and suddenly triumphant, “When I Heard at the Close of Day.” But you can't read that at your friend's wedding, it's too passionate. Everyone will think you're carrying a torch for Bozo.

The other day two friends of mine, who had just tied the knot at City Hall, had a picnic to celebrate. In that case, maybe because we'd already eaten and drunk and were sprawled around on the grass, maybe because we all were so happy to see our friends make it official, the readings hit the perfect note. I doubt there was a dry eye in that corner of Prospect Park. Someone read Whitman. Someone read Robert Frost's sonnet “The Silken Tent,” and someone read this less expected one, by William Morris, “Love Is Enough.” Which apart from being very pretty has the virtue of being all-purpose. I commend it to you:

Love is enough: though the World be a-waning,
And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,
Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder,
And this day draw a veil over all deeds passed over,
Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;
The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter
These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.

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21 COMMENTS

14 Comments

  1. M. M. | August 7, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Decline and Fall is in 6 volumes, do you have a favorite?

  2. Lorin Stein | August 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    I can’t pretend to have read them all (or the complete works of Michener, for that matter). But, as veterans of the G train know, it’s best to bring a backup …

  3. ursula birdwood | August 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    penguin has a beautiful 3-volume edition edited by david womersley. carrying any one of them will give you a workout in addition to a way to pass the time waiting for a million g trains.

  4. Gyorgy Kustov | August 9, 2010 at 4:10 am

    this is gross: reading to create an impression and a tummy-rubbing response. why didn’t you just reject the question?

  5. lazybones8 | August 9, 2010 at 5:12 am

    Whoopsie, I think you meant James Michener, not Charles Michener!

  6. Lorin Stein | August 9, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I do indeed mean James. Thank you, Lazybones8!

    Mr Kustov, I’m sorry to have grossed you out! I think the question may have been meant facetiously. (My answer was.) But I feel less strongly than you do about reading to make an impression. People read for all sorts of impure reasons. I tend to trust those more than the pure ones.

    And surely there are worse ways to pick somebody up …

  7. Lawrence | August 9, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Perhaps impurity can be trusted to the extent that it need not be encouraged, cf. the most beautiful flowers, which are frequently weeds. Gather them while you may!

  8. lazybones9 | August 9, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    He can’t reject the questions because he makes them up.

  9. Lorin Stein | August 9, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    If only!

  10. kristjan | August 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    For the wedding may I recommend “A Slice of Wedding Cake” by Robert Graves. Thought it starts out downright hostile (“Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls married impossible men?”) but eventually establishes a somewhat ironically friendly tone (perhaps), so you can pretend to be disliking the groom in all honesty, which most of the guests, of course, will take as a joke. A win-win.
    http://www.geoffwilkins.net/fragments/Graves.htm
    And Graves himself reciting
    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19019

  11. Cara | August 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I’ve actually made a couple friends reading Sebald. The people who love him LOVE him.

  12. Brian | August 13, 2010 at 11:31 am

    If I see anyone reading Sebald or DFW’s Infinite Jest, I am definitely compelled to say something, although occasionally my enthusiasm is too great for a train encounter.

  13. futurehelen | October 2, 2010 at 5:12 am

    a nice wedding poem:
    Optics for Lovers

    There are things
    we cannot know
    but feel as true:
    days strictly numbered,
    longings never quite satisfied,
    beliefs we hold close to us
    for sheer warmth, disbelieving
    when it grows too hot.

    And, yet, within these days,
    uneven and unfinished,
    you are twining
    round strictures,
    through crevices,
    reaching along the tenuous wire
    to the warmth
    of each other.

    So you have tangled, bloomed.
    I see this: desires and hopes
    clustered so profusely
    that it does not matter
    how long the days last
    or what has come before.
    Such is belief.

    So it is that you both unfold,
    putting forth something greater
    than yourselves.
    Survive newness.

    So you learn
    that you know nothing yet: only the
    heat and hope of each other.

    Carry what you know now
    into the next morning
    as though you carry morning’s
    heat into the night.

    In this life one practices
    to love the other
    in a way one leaf unfolds
    to feel the warmth.
    Thousands before you have felt
    the sun and rain
    and thousands will again.
    No matter: summer is the faith in summer,
    the habit of waking earlier each day,
    sleeping only when the stars arrive,
    an ease of movement into life.
    What is summer?
    I will tell you:
    on the first day
    one learns
    the next, on the second,
    the third.

    Later, you call it grace
    because you remember more,
    and, later, still,
    the genius of time reveals, no,
    recovers
    each face overlapping
    the other.

    Now, only now,
    you move as a pair of eyes do:
    together, focusing
    upon the flower
    to create, from two angles,
    such depth that we
    who stand alongside,
    we who are looking
    continuously ahead,
    turn to
    feel this dimension
    and take heart
    as a blind girl might open a window
    to feel the shape of the linden blooms
    through the endless layers of air and light.

  14. save the planet | November 6, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I really like the poem that was very nice write up you made.You can read also save the planet book.

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