What Singaporeans actually read on the train

You might not notice him, but if you’re flipping through a book on the MRT, there’s a good chance he’ll notice you. Aaron Ho is the Instagrammer behind MRT Reads, an account dedicated to recording the books that Singaporeans read on their commutes. We caught up with the PhD candidate to find out more about him and his project.


What’s your day job?

I’m a PhD candidate at a New York university, specializing in Victorian literature. I’ve finished my coursework and most of my exams over there. I returned to Singapore to write my dissertation, and once I’m done, I’ve to go back to New York to take my final exam. I’m at my last chapter of dissertation. 

What inspired you to start MRT Reads?

I got the idea from Underground New York Public Library. It’s a website that posts photos of people reading on the New York subway. In New York, you see a lot of people reading.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?

I just wanted to document Singaporeans reading on public transport because I’m always curious about what others are reading. I did it also because seeing other people read is inspiring and makes you want to read. It’s like watching those “extreme weight loss” TV shows; they are motivational. And this project is to encourage more citizens and residents in Singapore to read. 

Any interesting observations?

There is a sociological aspect. By noticing what people are reading, you can tell what sort of community we live in. I notice that many people are reading self-help books and books on religion. This phenomenon implies how spiritually bankrupt our society is. And the solution is that we need to read more fiction to enrich our lives! We need more art. 

Furthermore, reading is often seen as a solitary activity: heads bent low, avoiding eye contact, engrossed in a world. Looking at MRT Reads, you’ll see reading isn’t as solitary as it seems. The photos join together to form a big picture, as if these readers are communicating with one another through books. It’s the idea of forming a community I’m in interested in because communities encourage conversations. And conversations are good for democracy.  

Communities are important because they tie to national identity and nationalism. What’s more Singaporean than MRT trains? No matter how rich or poor a Singaporean is, they would have taken the MRT before. I’m a closet patriot. 

What sort of responses have you received so far?

Some positive, but the few negative responses are louder. They are concerned about the privacy of an individual. That’s actually something I thought about before starting the project because I am a private person myself, and wouldn’t like my photo to be taken. But the people who posted negative comments are barking up the wrong tree. Firstly, there are no laws against public photography in the world. Hey, if New York, one of the most liberal cities in the world, has no qualms about it, then we shouldn’t too.

And what do people think about the books themselves?

Many negative responses seem to be concerned with what the people are reading, seeming to imply that reading certain books is illicit. Although Eve Sedgwick, a prominent gender theorist, once said that the action of reading is like a person in shame with bent heads, reading is never shameful. As Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” That said, if someone’s photo is posted and they are uncomfortable about it, please write to me and I’ll take the photo down. 

How often do you actually see people reading on the train?

Not as often as I would like. There are way fewer readers in Singapore than in New York.

What do you think of surveys that suggest Singaporeans have no time to read?

If you take public transport, or if you take a dump in the toilet, or if you surf Facebook, then you’ve time to read. But time and energy are two different things. After working, I fully empathize with people. After a long day at work, using so much brain power, the last thing you want to do is to read and ponder over complex issues. At the end of a long working day, all I want is Korean BBQ with cold beer, and to watch a stupid Adam Sandler movie.

What about the fact that Singaporeans are not reading “literary” books?

I love it that Singaporeans are not reading “literary” books, because what really is “literary”? What we consider “literary” these days was considered trash in the past. Shakespeare’s plays were often watched by prostitutes and pickpockets. Charles Dickens’ novels were considered as sensational as 50 Shades of Grey. Books’ cultural value arise from their ability to speak to a generation. If 50 Shades of Grey and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have large readership, it means people identify with the books’ morality and values. Although it is true that you can gain more from reading a “literary” book, there is nothing wrong with reading “non-literary” books. What is important is one should always keep reading.    


He was holding Ramachandra Guha’s _Gandhi Before India_, a biography on the eminent politician. You’ll find Ramachandra Guha @Wikipedia: he’s apparently a well-known historian at the prestigious @LondonSchoolofEconomics, and a columnist for _The Telegraph_ and @Hindustan_Times. I fully empathize with the reader’s look of fatigue. When I started working, I realized how exhausting it is to read after work. After work, I just want beer and a belly full of Korean BBQ, and not think of anything. Dear Reader, thanks for trying to read after a long, hard day at work. It’s inspiring. Never stop reading. #singapore #mrtreads #dhobyghautmrt #NEL #dhobyghaut #igreads #booksofinstagram #bookworm #bibliophile #booknerd #gandhi #ramachandraguha #biography

A photo posted by MRT Reads / Mr Treads (@mrtreads) on

How hard have you had to work to get a good view of a book title?

Very hard. Usually the people around the reader will notice my staring, but the reader doesn’t. It’s a good sign that the reader is engaged with the book. 

What do you read on the train?

Currently, I’m reading for my dissertation. Havelock Ellis’ 600-page autobiography. He was a sexologist during the fin de siècle. But I read all kinds of books. I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, a Young Adult fan-fic book on a gay Harry Potter and a gay Edward Cullen. Before that, I read Booker Prize winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – sort of like The Godfather – and George R R Martin’s A Dance of Dragons, from the Game of Thrones series. I should be reading more Victorian novels.