Commuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.
I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.
My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.