On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below are solely those of the author, Phoebe Maltz.

2006_01_14subwayreading.jpgNo spitting, radio playing, smoking, or littering is permitted on public transportation. Coffee and cameras come in and out of legality. But one subway crime remains, thankfully, entirely legal: reading over the shoulder of the person sitting next to you.

Confession: Whenever I get on the train, regardless of whether I have something of my own to read, I scan, at the very least, the titles of all reading material within eyeshot. Because my job is of the 9-5 variety, the trains as I experience them are typically packed, so I often cannot take a book I've brought out of my bag without elbowing five other people, or with any expectation whatsoever of having room to turn the pages. If I'm subtle, I can get away with sneaking even a semi-extended peek. And so I confess, I read over your shoulder. But there is no reason if you see me on the subway to tilt your books away. If you want, you can read over mine.

What people read on the subway says more about them than they may realize. Leafing through a self-help book announces your problems with debt, romance, or diet. Crisp-suited, sensible-looking, sneaker-sporting businesswomen wrapped up in graphically sexual novels or odes to designer clothing (devils who wear Prada, blondes who shop at Bergdorfs, and similar) imply dissatisfaction with their day-to-day lives.

My favorite second-hand reads are the following: Upside-down Talmuds (when I'm standing above where a Hasidic man is sitting), which are great because I can try simultaneously to read upside-down and backwards. A challenge even on the rare day I am both well-rested and well-caffeinated. Then, there are the free dailies, which seemingly do not exist at the station near my apartment. Nothing like some gruesome outer-borough murders and Lindsey Lohan antics to start the day. Any sort of political manifesto is always fun, but those are hard to come by. Anything in French or Hebrew, the two foreign languages I to some extent understand, is much appreciated, thank you.

And now, so you know, my least favorites: Word-circling games (and their electronic cousin—simple, hand-held video games) do nothing for me. Same with sports pages—I always feel vaguely annoyed if someone reading an interesting news story abruptly turns to a page with words like "coach" scattered all over it. Anything in a language whose script I don't understand. Bibles—sort of hard to get into on a glance-at-a-time basis. Work-related excel-type printouts from fellow passengers' office jobs—there's a reason people have to get paid to read such things. Standardized test review books. Blech. Let's work on this people.

You're supposed to mind when others read over your shoulder. I, on the other hand, not only find it flattering, but am thrilled to spread whatever information I think worth knowing to those around me. Unfortunately, it seems there's limited interest in Zionist history or 19th century French novels, even those in English translation. Taking Hannah Arendt along for a commute is a way to feel super-smart and intellectual, but is probably up there with an cover-less cup of coffee as a way to make sure the person next to you shifts just a little bit to the other direction.

Perhaps my need to dart my eyes across an array of different reading material, even when engrossed in my own, is a result of the iPodization of our culture. This song… no that song, this novel, no that newspaper, and so on. Perhaps the internet has made me see the world as an icon-filled screen, with endless but never-satisfying options. Or maybe I should bike to work.

You can find more of Phoebe's opinions here. And just because Gothamist is curious, what books do you like and dislike to read over other peoples shoulders?

Photograph from seeding-chaos's flickr stream.