Toronto Star, January 3, 2016
Besides being a sweet way to travel, trains are machines made for stories.
The clickety-clack cadence, the lulling sway, the passing landscape of pastoral calm or gritty urban clutter — the factories, apartment blocks, laundry lines and fleeting glimpses of other people’s lives.
A mind in transit is a mind ripe for narrative.
Stephen Leacock knew that, or he wouldn’t have started a story by writing, “It leaves the city every day about five o’clock in the evening, the train for Mariposa.”
Anne Bailey knows it, too.
Bailey is Toronto Public Library’s director of branch libraries. It was her idea to have the library install a book-lending kiosk at Union Station, where there are trainfuls of prospective readers.
“We’re tossing ideas around all the time,” she says of TPL, which watches what other libraries are doing; what banks or airports are trying in an increasingly mobile, self-service world; what other service providers are offering wherever people congregate or pass through in numbers.
For instance, after reading about how a local bar and grill was providing charging stations for tech devices and designing lighting to accommodate screens, Bailey headed down to investigate and invited a restaurant rep to come talk to library staff.
“We’re always watching things like that and asking how does that relate to what we do,” she says. “We’re always looking for ways to extend our reach and ways to keep costs down.”
So the notion of the kiosks arose. And after the process of researching, budgeting and approving, the TPL hopes to roll out a book-lending machine at Union Station by April, offering those on the move 24-7 access to popular novels, non-fiction, DVDs and downloadable ebooks.
While not new in Canada, such a service would be a first in Toronto, hoping to take advantage of the twin factors of “how many people there are that go through there every day,” Bailey says, and the particular pleasures of “reading when you’re in transit.”
If the pilot project is successful, it might be expanded to subway stations and other high-traffic locations in the city. But what to stock the machine with? That’s where the fun comes in.
In a sensible world, it would surely contain Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Harry Potter’s tales of the Hogwarts Express, and perhaps Rolling Nowhere, Ted Conover’s chronicle of riding the rails with America’s hoboes.
Canada, a country built on the railway, takes a back seat to no one when it comes to yarns involving trains.
Let’s suggest Howard Akler’s The City Man, a rollicking good novel set in 1934 featuring light-fingered grifters working Union Station. Look, there’s Mona, her fetching bottom distracting a mark walking through the grand concourse, Chesler slipping in behind to lift the man’s wallet and slip away in the crowds.
“The touch has come off without a flaw, a thing of beauty in 12 seconds, in a whiz.”
Or Richard B. Wright’s Giller Prize-winning novel Clara Callan. “When the train started up again, I stared at my reflection in the lighted window. Saw a serious, haggard face. I thought about the secrets in my life …”
Perhaps commuters with a taste for exotic locales will open Rohinton Mistry’s Giller winner A Fine Balance and set out on a journey so absorbing they hope it never ends.
“The long-anticipated rumble at last rippled through the compartment, and the train shivered down its long steel spine.”
Another story, pulling out of the station.