Julie Wilson's Love Letter to Readers
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Julie Wilson’s Love Letter to Readers

Seen Reading, based on the blog of the same name, is a collection of micro-fiction that captures the imaginary world created by readers while in transit with their books.

Dear Toronto talked with Wilson in 2009 about the Seen Reading project.

Julie Wilson, author of the new book Seen Reading, is funny, articulate, and self-deprecating. She has a fondness for both witty anecdotes and bathroom humour: an ideal cocktail party guest or, you might think, a good person to sit beside on a long commute. In transit however, Wilson—a self-described literary voyeur—is more likely to be peering over someone’s shoulder and scribbling into her notebook than chatting up a fellow passenger.

Fittingly, Wilson also knows how to throw an interesting party. On Monday, at the book’s launch, she had volunteers go on stage to pretend they were riding the subway—the tallest volunteer got to be a subway pole the others hung on to, while lightly swaying.

What is a literary voyeur? For Wilson, reading in public is a form of exhibitionism; since she watches others reading, her actions make her a voyeur. And while you might think exhibitionism in this context refers to the book covers people show (or try to hide), Wilson is much more interested in the readers themselves, in the potential reactions the next sentence or page elicits from them. “[Y]ou have no idea what emotions may floor you from one sentence to the next, and when they do, I’m there, watching,” she writes in Seen Reading.

If you use the TTC regularly, you may have seen Wilson, over the past five years, spotting someone reading, then making notes about the book, the reader, and how far through it they’ve progressed. She’s been chronicling some of those observations on her blog (also called Seen Reading), wherein she imagines the mindset of the readers she’s watched in spare but potent prose. Her very first entry involved spotting a woman “distressed” while nearing the end of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness. After the encounter, Wilson rushed to the nearest bookstore to buy the book and began reading it “in anticipation of the final pages, where I would once again meet this reader within the book that moved her so.” And so, a voyeur was born.

Wilson, in the grey coat, reads selections from Seen Reading while pretending to be on the subway. Photo by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.

While the word “voyeur” may have unsavory undertones, it is the perfect choice here. “Observer” or “watcher” (as in “people-watcher”) don’t capture the level of passion Wilson has for literature, the joys of reading, and the bonds between readers, nor the dynamics of her experiences, which take place just on the edge of private space created around a person when she reads in public. Wilson understands this private space, and then cleverly inverts it in her writing. Reading a book need not be about hiding away in plain sight: it can be a way of giving yourself permission to have deep experiences while in public. Wilson’s micro-fiction doesn’t take away from the reader or those experiences—it’s a way of celebrating them.

Wilson, at the launch, mentioned that transience runs through the book as a theme. She offered a few possible explanations: maybe it was that the readers were always in transit; maybe it was that while the commute remained the same, the commuters would always have different faces; or maybe it was something about Wilson herself, some need to connect with people around her that she didn’t know, except to know that they shared a common passion for books.

Perhaps, too, Wilson could sense the shift that would happen as books went virtual. With over 100 pieces of micro-fiction (chosen from over 700 blog entries) she has captured a time when walking down the length of a subway car meant seeing a mosaic of covers rather than the greys and blacks of electronic devices we encounter more often today, and there’s something magical about capturing that image.

No matter its form, though, reading will continue in our city, now fortified by the release of Seen Reading, a beautiful love letter to reading in Toronto.