It seems like I was in a galaxy of both a long ago past and a far-away future. I was sitting in a railway station – Dublin’s Connolly – doing what I’ve had a lifetime of practice doing: people watching. And there were a lot of people to watch as the morning’s commuter trains disgorged hoards [or is it herds?] of unmasked work-bound people. I was headed in the other direction. I know it sounds cruel, but as I struggled upstream into their surge I flashed on the opening footage of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

I’m not – and never have been – a morning person. While caffeine definitely helps, it’s time that cures all as I progress from sleep to semi-consciousness to consciousness to actually giving a damn.

By the time I was on my suburban bookstore-bound train I was awake enough to notice the readers. Not just those scanning their newspapers on smart phones [it’s rare to see an opened-up broadsheet in any public place these days , no matter how good they are at masking disease-laden droplets], but lots of people reading books, real books. While there were a handful of e-readers what really impressed me were the people reading ink-on-paper romances, histories and other genres. And not in pocket-sized volumes, but really thick, heavy, Harry Potter-sized books. While some were sitting, many of these pre-Covid passengers were standing elbow-to-elbow with other riding readers. The slight depression I felt observing the exit stampedes dissolved as I noticed the number of people finding a productive way to spend their commuting time.  

My first destination: Dalkey, where I’ll confess to not seeing, much less meeting, Matt Damon, even though he was probably in town on the day I was there. But unless he was climbing a wall with a SuperValu bag or stalking a bad guy, Bourne-style, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. [Are there any bad guys in Dalkey?] Likewise, for all I know, Enya could have been sitting at a table near mine over breakfast. I haven’t a clue what that beautiful voice looks like.

Anyway, I discovered The Gutter Bookshop is practically part of the train station. OK, to be more accurate, it took me about 45 seconds to walk from the station door to the shop door. A fraction of the size of its city centre sister, Gutter appears to aim at local townspeople with kids and the commuters who surrounded me for most of the morning. Their staff recommendation [thank you, Marta] brought me back to memory lane, with Granta.  There was a time when I subscribed to this wonderful periodical and to be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten it as my life moved on. But an issue promoting new Irish writing caught my eye and my wallet. It’s perfect for my journey – and its short stories and photo essays are perfect for commuters. I started reading it while I was sipping another coffee and queuing for my next train, Since I didn’t notice anybody with blue sunglasses looking over my shoulder, it looks like I escaped town without ruining my celebrity-free life.

My visit to Blackrock’s Raven Books was a somewhat longer journey: all of five minutes from the DART stop. This wonderful warren of shelves and mirrors has been on my must-see list for a while, simply because of their intriguing Twitter feed. [ ] I wasn’t disappointed because I saw one more reason for the resurgence of independent shops. Standing in front of me at the till was an older man who mentioned that he was buying his book as a gift. The clerk told the man that he couldn’t sell him that particular book. A half-beat later he pulled a copy of the book from his window display for the somewhat confused customer. “You’ll want this one, not that one, because it’s in gift-giving condition,” he said, pointing out a nick in the original copy’s dust jacket.  Without any such restrictions, I’d pulled my book from a shelf full of award winners, simply because [a] it was an award-winner I’d never heard of and [b] I liked the cover design. With no one in the queue behind me, we talked of the importance of design. I recalled how Miyashita’s Forest of Wool and Steel jumped off the shelf at me in Bantry. I’ve since read it twice and will probably do so again. Book cover design is just another example of how attractive packaging can be a starter drug, introducing us to previously unknown authors or genres.

Both Raven’s and Gutters’ adjacency to commuter rail stations reminded me of an equally smart real estate decision I encountered in Australia. Libraries in the Blue Mountains have Book Express branches open during morning rush hours for Sydney-bound passengers. While the scenery you see from the train might be interesting to look at, I guess that daily riders in both Dublin and Sydney eventually want something else in front of their eyes. Mass transit does more than save energy, it helps build brain cells.

This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.

Also, if you’ve never seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, find it and watch it. Since the 1936 film is now in the public domain, you should be able to stream it for little or no charge. For better – or worse – its message and humour are just as valid today as they were then.