General Reflections

Reading on Public Transport

There is a singular advantage to public transport over the freedom of personal conveyance; since all responsibility for directing the vehicle is given over to another one can use the time usually stolen by a journey to read.

There are, of course, other ways to make use of this idleness. Staring out the window and contemplating any subject that drifts across one’s awareness may be equally profitable, as might sketching other passengers, or in lieu of pen and paper, inventing clever projects and ambitious ideas without any obligation to get up and initiate them. Some choose to have loud personal conversations, seemingly oblivious to their being surrounded by thirty curious strangers. These too, may provide a diversion, though, like a hospital waiting room with the television playing midday soaps, something that can only be endured for so long.

Reading, however, is the best of these options. To begin with there are so few portions of a busy day in which no guilt need be attached to something as indulgent as a good book. Public transport and in particular buses, which are never in a hurry, provide an opportunity like no other. This is also an ideal time to engage in reading something arduous or long unfinished, as the option to switch to a more exciting book is removed. The activity of reading additionally acts to separate the reader from fellow travelers in such a way that few dare approach or speak to them, so solemn they appear. While statistics are currently unavailable it seems likely, based on anecdotal evidence, that passengers are less inclined to sit next to an individual who is reading and, if forced to, will keep to themselves out of respect for this sacred state of concentration.

The varieties of transportational reading are many. Newspapers were once a popular choice but seem lately to have fallen out of favour. Paperbacks are conveniently lightweight and still widely available. Students may be easily identified by sheaves of exam notes, text books or unit readers, and indeed university routes provide a final chance to at least glance at those readings one is about to confidently discuss. For particularly long or scenic journeys, audio books provide the perfect solution, likewise for overly noisy or crowded buses, or when one does not wish to advertise their choice of fiction. Failure to remember to bring reading material has led to resourceful alternatives, such as surreptitiously reading over a neighbour’s shoulder or developing an unusual fascination for bus timetables.

It should be noted that there are various potential dangers involved in this occupation. The most prominent; becoming overly engrossed in the text and missing one’s stop. This can, however, have the benefit of extending the journey so that a few more chapters might be got in and a charming anecdote made of the late arrival. Another threat is the rare but persistent friendly reader. The friendly reader, unlike the genuine bibliophile, does not subscribe to the code of introversion generally accepted among the truly bookish. He will start by asking what it is you are reading (even if the cover is angled in such a way that he can read the title for himself) and then proceed to engage you in conversation, despite any aggravated tone of voice or raised eyebrow you might employ as deterrent. This discussion will quickly veer from your choice of book to his personal tastes and reading habits and soon become a monologue from which there is no easy escape. The best you can hope for is that his stop comes before your own and, failing that, it must be considered how far you are willing to walk.

The question then, is how best to select reading material for such occasions. On a practical note, the book should be neither overly large, heavy or fragile, as one may be forced to read standing up, in which case it must be held in a single hand. Short stories are an excellent option, as one or two may be completed during the journey, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction. One should never carry a book they are ashamed to be seen with. This is, after all, public transport and one’s choice of book is as likely to draw notice as one’s hat. Some readers have even been known to select books entirely on this criteria, choosing an impressive French or Russian novel to complete their look. These frauds can be easily identified by how often they turn the pages. Finally, anything overly popular or controversial at the time should be avoided, as this is likely to attract the attention of both the friendly and over-the-shoulder reader.

Despite the inherent dangers, the avid reader should take full advantage of public transport for the opportunity it presents to both catch up on neglected reading and feel infinitely superior to those playing video games on their phones.

This mock-essay was inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (which you can read here.) The Merriam-Webster assures me that ‘transportational’ is indeed a word, though the OED begs to differ.

Skye M.W.



Winding down and a wake for MEMS

And so another semester ends, final assessments are submitted and the long summer stretches out ahead of me with all its empty hours and plans to fill them. Yet I can’t help but feel a certain sadness at the prospect, as this has been, without doubt, my most rewarding semester so far. Studying full time was more than a lifestyle change, granting me the time in which to explore material in depth and to read around the topics that intrigue me. I’ve been able to attend public lectures on viking burial sites, Queen Christina of Sweden and melancholy and the mind sciences, all of which have helped to fill in gaps in my understanding or allowed me to draw connections between the material covered in class and contemporary research.

Attending the PMRG conference in September gave me a glimpse into the realm of postgraduate research, both inspiring and intimidating in the quality of the papers presented. The conference contributed to what has been my most significant realisation over the past three months; the value of interdisciplinary studies. It is tragic that I have only come to appreciate this at a time when my university is acting to remove interdisciplinary courses from the prospectus. I’m fortunate, in that I will be able to complete my major, but saddened that future students will not be able to enroll in Medieval and Early Modern studies (MEMS.) Since reading Sir Orfeo in my first year as an undergrad I’ve been fascinated by medieval culture and feel the subject deserves far more than a unit or two under English and History to do it justice. The brilliant and passionate students I have met through this shared interest will be a great loss to the institution when they leave to pursue postgraduate studies elsewhere.

Another highlight of this semester has been having the time to socialise between classes and meet new people who share my academic interests. I have found, without exception, that everyone studying MEMS has an avid enthusiasm for the subject and many explore their interest creatively through writing, art, theatre or living history. This desire, to not only study but experience the period on some level, is part of what drew me to MEMS and to meet so many kindred spirits is the best sort of encouragement. I’m deeply grateful for the long conversations, shared ideas and book recommendations!

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to focus on my own research interests through my assessments this semester and to discover new sources that have changed my understanding of those topics. I’ve always been drawn to folklore, but thought of it mostly as a discipline that began in the 19th century, however through researching early modern healing practices I encountered Martin Martin who collected folklore from the western islands of Scotland in the late 17th century, a source I know I will be returning to in the future. Likewise, I was introduced to medieval folklore through the legends of Virgil the Magician, on which I wrote an essay and a 10,000 word short story. Through this topic I was also able to indulge my fascination with medieval occult texts and pour over the pages of the beautiful Ars notoria, sive Flores aurei

Over the next few weeks I will be finishing the last few assignments, sitting what will hopefully be my last ever exam and preparing my application for exchange in the second half of next year. Then I can look forward to reading all those books I’ve borrowed from the library, writing without the pressure of assessment and planning for 2016.

Skye M.W.

Hallowe’en, 2015.