Project Stalker: Travelling Reader (Part one)

In cities as vibrant as Berlin, the best place for meditation might not be a sun-lit yoga room immersed in ambient music, but rather a tumbling cabinet filled with teachers off work, night shift engineer heading to a site of mechanic disaster, or historian going home with a cultural dialogue.

To gain a better sight of a landscape, we would probably hike up a hill. But to gain an insight into the readerscape of a city, I decided to travel along in the underground train and see how people travel at 72km/h across pages.


On a Saturday afternoon, 5:15pm, returning home from a friend’s place at Merhingdamm, Hayri was turning pages of the book written by Ian S. Markham, both a priest and a scholar of Theology. “I always read on the road.” said Hayri, a Turkish historian currently doing a research project on the cultural dialogue between Islam and Christianity, “Usually I read novel in train, like those by Gunter Gras. But today I picked something relevant to my project first.” He has been living and working in Berlin for 30 years.

How does he like about U-Bahn reading? “It is a single 30mins trip every day from home to work.” It gives him plenty of time for uninterrupted reading, “And the multi-cultural environment is quite good in here. People with different background take trips together” said Hayri while a flute player came in the cabinet and started playing.


On her way to Zitadelle Spandau (probably shopping for a carpet), Martina is reading “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon. Unlike Christopher, the story’s autistic protagonist who finds the overwhelming information in trains unbearable, Martina has her own way to keep a peace of mind. “Books are usually for trips in the weekends” said Martina, “In weekdays, I usually read newspaper which I get from work, or sometimes listen to music. It’s easier to concentrate that way.”

Yet outside the individualistic atmosphere in U-Bahn, Martina is a communicative person. She is working as an English teacher for kids from 17 to 27. But note, in her class, students talk only in English!
So where is the ideal place for reading? The winner is… obviously, in bed in the evening! She particularly loves to read literary works of English writers like Tim Parks. “German is surely an excellent language, very intellectual and so on.” she explained, “But for novels, I sometimes find contemporary German writers having less good stories to tell.” Well, though her husband is a German writer for book reviews in the Berliner Zeitung.

When we finally take off the train, she suggested me to pay attention to Book Crossing – a practice of voluntary book exchange where people leave their books in public space and let others who do likewise to pick up. Yes, why don’t we make U-Bahn a mobile library?


At 7pm, a martial art master assassin who know seven languages and a special “proximity sense” to danger is taking U7 from Siemensdamm to some emergency site for a technical mystery. It is, of course, a book I am talking about. “Satori”, a spy thriller by Don Winslow. Thomas who was reading it during the trip to work is an engineer working for S-Bahn.

Thomas was in the army – seems a perfect match to his interest in mysterious conspiracy thriller. And he does have a “proximity sense”, which is to know exactly the time to close the book and take off in the right station. “I don’t know why. I can just do it like pausing a VCR.”

To him, it is now not as easy to find good author as in the past. While bestsellers like Da Vinci Code seem so unreal to him, he like Tom Clancy’s work quite well. “I am a third generation Berliner,” said Thomas “at time when we grow up in 70s and 80s, entertainment was everywhere.” Free television channels, books and stuff had flourished in West Berlin as a show window to the DDR.”

But according to him, since the Berlin Wall has fallen, TV channels are now paid and the stuff there is just not as good. Abeit nostalgic, he told me a lot about the exciting stranger-than-fiction history of the 80s, including some Atomic Bunkers in his childhood, SS-20, canned food reserve that is still available today and so on.

Now the Cold War is way behind our memories, and capitalism rules this mundane world. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to indulge ourselves into the world of fiction?

Next issue: I am going to continue “stalking” on U-Bahn readers, but this time in a less random manner. Let’s see where books will bring me to.

By Joao Li
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