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Natalie Southwick | Voices

You are what you read

What better way to judge your fellow commuter than by the book in his hand?

By Natalie Southwick
Globe Correspondent / September 6, 2010

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I’m a bit of a public transportation book snob. Honestly, I’m almost always a book snob, but it’s most blatant when I’m crammed into a packed subway car with a thousand other commuters — I just want to know that the book jabbing me in the back has a worthwhile name on its own spine.

But snobbery can be lonely. Hence my glee, a few weeks ago, when an online reader asked Lorin Stein, the Paris Review’s editor and occasional blogger, to recommend books that would inspire “interesting people’’ to approach her on the subway. I’m not the only one! I thought.

Clearly, other commuters indulge in this vaguely intellectual form of people-watching, or at least feel the need to employ appropriate defensive measures. I’m always conscious that other passengers may be judging my taste in books as much as I’m judging theirs, so I try my best to cultivate an ideal (although perhaps not entirely accurate) impression. That’s why Haruki Murakami accompanies me to work, while Malcolm Gladwell stays home.

Of course, the definition of “interesting’’ is hardly universal. The folks who might want to discuss the “merits’’ of “Atlas Shrugged’’ could be fascinating from a sociological standpoint, but that’s not something I want with my morning coffee. Or ever. But people attracted by the crustacean waving from the cover of “Consider the Lobster,’’ by the late, great David Foster Wallace? That’s the kind of interesting that interests me.

But, as Stein points out, navigating the subtleties of commuter-lit culture is as much about context as familiar names: “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,’’ he advises. He recommends various authors and books for individual New York subway lines — according to his picks (Roberto Bolaño’s amazing “2666,’’ and my current T tome, Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow’’ ), I’m a G train girl.

While Boston has fewer subway lines, Stein’s point still applies here. Would Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,’’ appeal as much to the college-age crowd on the Green Line as it might to the professional riders of the Red, or would you have more success opening Charlaine Harris’s latest Sookie Stackhouse novel as you head down Comm. Ave.? Perhaps Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules’’ would be appropriate for the South End-bound foodies of the Silver Line, Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory’’ for Orange Line commuters, or a Dennis Lehane novel for the Revere Beach-goers of the Blue. As for the Commuter Rail — shouldn’t you be checking your BlackBerry?

Fiction can usually rely on name recognition, but nonfiction books require a little extra help. “You need a catchy title or a catchy image — something that makes it appealing so someone might ask, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’ ’’ says Paul Theriault, who has worked at Brookline Booksmith for 12 years. Theriault recommends E.H. Gombrich’s “A Little History of the World,’’ which he says has a “giggly passionate’’ fan base, and “An Irreverent Curiosity,’’ by David Farley. For those seeking potential dates, there’s also Mary Roach’s “Bonk,’’ which tackles absurd questions and myths about sex. “She has a lot of name recognition around here,’’ says Theriault.

Frankly, I’m shocked companies that make e-readers aren’t already using commuter judgment as a marketing tool. Yes, the relative low cost of books and light weight are attractive, but the real appeal is that shiny screen, behind which we can hide our true, trashy-novel-consuming natures. Unless they’re sitting directly next to you and peering over your shoulder, it’s impossible for fellow riders to discern that you’re reading “Breaking Dawn,’’ and judge you for it. A recent column in the Style section of The New York Times suggested e-readers may work as pickup lines for some people, but I’m not convinced. To me, nothing says “antisocial’’ quite like a Kindle. Give me a paperback for a conversation-starter any day.

So, to the man reading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s “Good Omens’’ on the 77 bus, the woman with enough commitment to lug around the seventh “Harry Potter’’ book, the cute boy buried in “Super Sad True Love Story’’ — I see you. And I want to be friends, or at least chat with you. Come find me — I’ll be the girl with Vendela Vida’s “The Lovers’’ under my arm, trying to look interesting.