NEW YORK — Jostling for elbow room in a jam-packed subway car may seem a strange way to get wrapped up in a good book.
Yet thousands do it every day here in Manhattan, the place where reading has somehow always been more than just curling up at home. Whether immersed in the din of the subway or the public solitude of the library's famous reading room, many New Yorkers consider books a kind of birthright, and their city the place that caters to a host of eclectic tastes.
So when a committee of civic groups recently convened to find a single book for all New Yorkers to read - following a national trend in which whole cities try to become Oprah-like reading groups - many found the effort foreign to New York's unique literary ethos.
"It's almost like a contradiction of the whole project," says Bob Contant, co-owner of St. Mark's Bookshop, an independent store in the East Village. "There's such a cultural mix here in New York, that there is no way that there's going to be one book that answers that definition."
After all, New York's the city where hordes of lonely writers come from around the world - not to mention all the editors and publishers that package and peddle their thoughts. And whether it's reality or just myth or cliché, many New York readers see themselves as trendsetters, ahead-of-the-curve critics who find the good books first.
"Those of us who live in New York think of ourselves as more eager readers than anywhere else in the world," says Paul Elie, a writer and editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a publishing house in Greenwich Village. "I don't think that's necessarily true, but that's the way a lot of New Yorkers think of themselves."
Even former Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who's now president of the New York-based Association of American Publishers (AAP), notices a particular passion for books here.
"Everybody wants to compare themselves to the literate level of New York, because everyone feels that people are better read here," she says. "And just from walking around, you just see people reading on the subways, on buses, people on the street - it's almost as if people don't leave home without one."
Reading a book might be one of the most private experiences for a New Yorker - a sought-out solitude in a city where millions of people are literally packed together most of the time. On the subways, more people clutch books than newspapers or magazines as they sway, shoulder to shoulder, on the clacking trains.
But whether it's pulp or polemic, high-brow or trash, the tastes of New Yorkers can be as unpredictable and various as the people who live here. During rush hour on a recent afternoon, a middle-aged woman, dressed in a fur-collared jacket and purple fish-net stockings, sat reading "Rolling Nowhere," a book about America's hobo culture. Across from her stood a young black man, his cap backwards, thumbing through "The Death of the West," Patrick Buchanan's book on the perils of immigration.
"Usually you don't get a seat," says Aram Sinnreich, a music-industry analyst who takes the subway to Midtown from Brooklyn every day. "So with two hands you're attempting to hold a book, turn pages, hold on to your bag or laptop, and hold on to a pole so you don't go flying across the car."
Yet somehow, Mr. Sinnreich says, he's able to polish off a 300-word book every week or two. "Because of the onslaught of noise and information, New Yorkers are just programmed to block out all extraneous information that doesn't seem immediately relevant to them," he says. This week he's about to finish "The Elegant Universe," a book on quantum physics.
But people can also find solitude in a crowd in quiet places. Blocks from the 24/7 glitz of Times Square, the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library has for decades been a place where New York's literati have sat at huge oak tables and read books in this ornate, football-field-sized room. "Central Park is a great place to read, too," says Sinnreich. "New York is such a double broiler of a city - it can feel very claustrophobic and pressured - and reading in Central Park can be the ultimate vacation-in-an-hour."
If New Yorkers have found reading to be a quiet space within the intensity and high pace of living in this city, in some ways 9/11 has altered this, too. Instead of the "gifts of loneliness and solitude," as the writer E.B. White once put it, some New Yorkers may be looking for a more traditional communal spirit.
Indeed, while some scoffed at the suggestion there be a city-wide reading group - like Chicago's reading of "To Kill a Mockingbird" last year - others noticed that in the aftermath of the attacks, people want to talk more than they had before. It's much easier to chat with a stranger in an elevator now, or in a crowded subway car.
There is also a renewed pride in the city's self-understanding as cultural capital of the world, home of rough-edged intellectuals and readers. But if a post-9/11 desire for community clashes with New York's traditional image of obnoxious individualism, it's not likely to change the city's voracious reading appetite.
"Toggling back and forth between the public and private experience is the nature of reading more than for other aspects of culture," Mr. Elie says. "That's what makes it so interesting: A book you can feel possessive about, and yet have that sense of participation that the reading groups make possible."