Why commuters do not read

One of the curses of my new job is having to commute from Cambridge into London two or three (or four or five …) days a week. Commuting must be good for something. One of the things I find it good for is primate behaviour research. I have found, for example, than commuters do not read books.

This started with an observation last November – lots of people on the tube were starting books. Lots of them, reading the first few pages of books. None of them reading the end. Surely just coincidence?

Think again.

I started collecting statistics. I observed all the people on the trains that I saw reading books, and wrote down how far someone was through a book. I could not tell whether they were on page 276 out of 327, but I could estimate what proportion of the book they had read – 30%, 70% etc. Only real books count – manuals and computer books don’t, as people do not read them linearly. Magazines etc. don’t count, mainly because it is impossible to tell whether someone is on page 7 out of 13, or page 9. But a meaty bit of Tom Clancy or Dostoevsky or molecular biology or something, I got quite good at estimating how far on the readers had got. Of course, I had to note all the books being read in a carriage, to get a valid sample. This
lead to much craning and staring, and in any other country in the world I would probably have been shot. In England, of course, no-one comments.

Anyway, here are some numbers,…

So writes William Bains, in a Trinkaus-like study called “Why commuters do not read.”