I've never been to New York, apart from in my head. To a large degree, that's the best way to visit a city. Take the New York subway. Were you to travel other than through your imagination from 34th Street all the way up to Central Park, you would probably find the transport system populated by the self-same Mobile Phone Zombies as currently lurch through our London tunnels, shooting streams of fragmented text into our omnivorous eyeballs; snippets of news, gossip, football scores and trending hashtags.
(Photo by Daniel Davila)
At the end of the day, is it any wonder that our collective headspace feel as if it's been stuffed with the information equivalent of Pringles, M&Ms, and Nutella?
Not in New York. At least not through the eyes of photographer Ourit Ben-Haim, whose goal is to find midst the cell phone zombies a tribe of scattered but exquisitely ardent readers. Not Kindle readers either, but old-fashioned bibliophiles (the Reading-Riders she calls them): carrying, cradling, and passionately engaging with these almost quaint objects made of paper, ink, tape, and glue.
When I first discovered Ourit's Underground New York Public Library, I found the individual images, and even more so the collectively body of work, incredibly moving.
I'm not alone in this response. Ourit's underground library has some 13,000 followers on Tumblr, and an equal number on Facebook, all subscribing to her daily human reading being snapshots. "They make me giddy with literary companionship," reads one of the exultant, quasi-religious comments on her site. "There's so much to read into the individual and his/her choice of book," another comments. "I think it's beautiful how we can feel connected to someone who is reading something we have, even if we'll never meet."
I asked Ourit in a recent Skype-interview what she hoped people might take take away from her photographs:
"For me it's all about connection and the revelation of connection. What I want to accomplish with my work is to photograph inwardness, as impossible as that sounds; connecting to that portal of inwardness where the reader also find themselves connected, through the book, to the greatness of humanity."
Her photographs are also able to wrong-foot our preconceived notions of what might be fuelling these inward spaces. I wasn't surprised to see the slightly dotty-looking elderly gent with the fishing hat lost in Plutarch's Rome in Crisis, but a teenager happily ensconced in The Iliad? Or an even fresher-faced young lady mulling over A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft? Only in New York, I surmised.
Yes, only in New York do long-haired hipsters balance fat volumes of Borges on boxes of Raisin Bran. Only in New York might you see a woman on the underground with a copy of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch in front of a public health poster promoting breastfeeding.
But then I began to open my eyes. Which is to say that I too started taking photographs of Human Reading Beings (as I call them) on the London underground - also at book-readings, in parks, and other public spaces. In fact wherever I would find people reading.
This started inconspicuously from my mobile phone:
He's reading Terminal Earth by Alaistar Reynolds
But then, gathering courage, I began, like Ourit, to openly photograph my London Human Reading Beings with a more in-your-face digital SLR.
She's reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
She's reading The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz by Avey and Broomby
Occasionally, if they noticed me, I would explain what I was up to and give them details of the site (I also take down any photos people aren't happy with), but usually I just let them get on with their reading.
He's reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
He's reading Fear (Gone) by Michael Grant
She's reading The Girl With The Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
He's reading Ghost Milk by Ian Sinclair
After six months of carefully watching the human reading beings of London through my camera lens, I began to appreciate that in the digital age, the act of picking up a book, hefting it around with you on your commute, retrieving it from your bag with the intentional choice of methodically settling the mind onto and within the text, has now become a kind of beautiful, radical gesture akin to prayer or meditation.
Every human reading being becomes a kind of Buddha, a St. Augustine, a Talmudic scholar (even when reading John Grisham) - embodying in the act of reading what is most thrilling, strange, and indeed lovable about the species as a whole.
She's reading How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
She's reading Snapshots of The Boy by Shaun Levin
She's reading Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell.
Ourit concurs with this: "When I first started photographing the Reading-Riders, I felt like I was photographing a holy activity. There was just something about their expression, something about the fact that they were transported. As if they were really not in front of you, but somewhere else."
She cites to me another bibliophile Alberto Manguel, who in his A History of Reading recounts the following:
"Sitting across from me on the subway in Toronto, a woman is reading the Penguin edition of Borge's Labyrinths. I want to call out to her, to wave a hand and signal that I too am of that faith. She, whose face I have forgotten, whose clothes I barely noticed, young or old I can't say, is closer to me, by the mere act of holding that particular book in her hands, than many others I see daily."
"Nothing is more of a clear prop to this inward expression of another person's life than someone holding a book," Ourit believes. "Seeing this in a photograph is a reminder of where our daily reality occurs, of where it's all really happening."
Steve Wasserman is a CBT/ mindfulness psychotherapist and writer. His photographs of Human Reading Beings can be found at http://www.humanreadingbeing.co.uk. He also writes and podcasts as Read Me Something You Love (Twitter: @RMSYL), an open invitation to anyone who loves reading to share with him a piece of literature that excites them, followed by tea, biscuits and chat. If this interests you, or you would like to have your photograph taken in human-reading-being mode (no charge) please do get in touch.