MTA brings e-books to subway platforms

MTA brings e-books to subway platforms
Readers can pick a selection based on how much reading time they think they’ll have.
By Steve Barnes

This week the MTA unveiled its latest attempt to show how comfortably it has segued into the 21st century. Meant to show how fully high-technology has permeated the system, Subway Reads NY both showcases the presence of WiFi capability in an increasing number of stations and has given riders an incentive to take advantage of that capability.

Subway Reads, which is “Powered by Penguin Random House,” as it hastens to remind its users, allows straphangers/readers the opportunity to download snippets from an array of titles that include thrillers, literary classics, memoirs, children’s books and self-help. All you need is a tablet or smartphone with a WiFi connection. The idea is that you will download one of the books while waiting for a train on one of the platforms with a WiFi connection, and will then read the excerpt while traveling to or from work, or whatever other destination you’re headed for.

Surprisingly, finding one of those platforms in Queens is, while not as easy as it is in Manhattan, much simpler than it is in Brooklyn. Queens has 28 WiFi stations, located along the 7, E, F, G, M and R lines, while Brooklyn has just six. Manhattan, as you might expect, has over 100.

But once you put the question of inequalities between the boroughs to the side, two big questions remain: 1) How good is the selection of book excerpts offered? and 2) Does Subway Reads work?

To find out whether or not it works, we went to the Flushing-Main Street station on the 7 line, typed “subwayreadsny.com” into the browser of an iPhone and began to browse for something to occupy the time spent taking the train all the way across the borough. With the presidential campaign taking up so much space in the papers and on TV, the bemused grin of Bill Clinton staring out as us from the cover of “My Life” proved irresistible, so we clicked on that.

With little trouble, the excerpt appeared on the screen. In the top right hand corner of the page, the words “14 min.” appeared, letting us know how long Subway Reads thought it would take us to get through a rather undemanding, though entertaining passage about the traces that the father who died before the former president was born left on his life. Upon finishing the selection, a quick wrist-watch check informed us that it took only 10 minutes to get through it. Obviously, Subway Reads is no speed reader.

But speed is of the essence in another Subway Reads feature. Each selection has a highlighted section with a “#SubwayReads” hashtag at the end. The selected quotes are all safely within the 140-character limit required in order to Tweet them to a fellow e-reader, further encouraging the use of the MTA’s touted WiFi capbabilities.

Since we were left with at least 20 minutes before reaching the end of the 7 line, downloading another excerpt seemed like a good idea. Luckily since the 7 trains mostly run above ground, we weren’t dependent on WiFi while downloading a selection from Andre Agassi’s “Open,” our nod to the US Open. While a bit on the depressing side (“If tennis is life, then what follows tennis must be the unknowable void,” is the Tweetable takeaway from this book), it did download easily, and was more than engrossing enough to get us all the way to Hunters Point Avenue.

All in all, the selection of titles readers can pick from is pretty impressive. You can get a preview of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” or sample the late Oliver Sacks’ recent autobiography “On the Move.” And, in case you thought Penguin Random House was just being altruistic in this endeavor, there is a link on each page that easily allows you to order the book that the selection was taken from.

While depending on the consistency of WiFi service is something that might raise a few questions. Subway Reads actually does work quite well, and gives readers a chance to broaden their horizons. It’s a worthy follower to the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” series as well as a demonstration of its technical aspirations. And any enterprise that lets you read Patti Smith’s “M Train” while you’re on the M train can’t be all bad.

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