Bookworms Will Love This ‘Humans Of New York’-Style Instagram


Before moving to Brooklyn in 2013, Uli Beutter Cohen was terrified by the prospect of riding the subway. Born and raised in southern Germany, she saw the sprawling labyrinth of tunnels and ceaseless rattling of trains as a symbol of the overwhelming, frenetic pace of life in New York City. But standing on the platform for the very first time — watching the infamously temperamental G train creep its way into the station like a caterpillar — Cohen fell in love with the subway almost immediately.

“I totally believe that when you enter a new environment you have a very finite window before everything new becomes everyday life,” Cohen tells the Voice, recalling the mixture of panic and excitement she experienced after moving to New York. “With that in mind, I just really tried to pay attention and see what I could do to add [to the city.]”

Over the course of the last two years, Cohen’s contribution to the five boroughs has come in the form of Subway Book Review: an Instagram, Twitter and Facebook account that snaps black and white photographs of New Yorkers as they clutch their favorite train-ride reads. It’s like Humans of New York…but for bookworms. The pictures — which have earned Cohen more than 47,000 followers on Instagram — are also accompanied by small blurbs of text, often detailing a subject’s personal connection to his or her book.

The reviews are at once informative, introspective and endearing — a way of finding new recommendations while also getting to know the city’s serious readers — and the project has often served as a social lubricant of sorts for Cohen herself.

“Subway Book Review is like speed dating endlessly; you never know who you’re going to meet,” says Cohen, who currently lives in Fort Greene with her husband. “People react very differently. Sometimes they have headphones in and I’m tapping them on the shoulder and they’re like, ‘Whoa, someone’s breaking my bubble. Who is this woman?’ They’re so deep in the story that they get startled.

“Other times it’s really easy, almost like we’ve been waiting for each other,” she adds. “It’s a total thrill. I still get weak in the knees.”

The project lives almost entirely on Cohen’s iPhone. She’ll snap a quick photo at the edge of a dimly lit platform or a crowded subway car, then type away with her thumbs as her subjects mull the merits and faults of their current reads. Sometimes a conversation lasts only a sentence or two before a reviewer reaches their destination. Other times Cohen might chat with a commuter for 20 minutes and make plans to go grab a drink after work.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Elise: "The author is a profound feminist. She gives talks, she's a published author, a scholar and she was sampled on Beyoncé's last album on the track 'Flawless' talking about feminism. This particular book is based on a TEDx talk she gave about the realities of sexual politics. We're raising boys and girls differently when they should really be raised the same. We should be true to ourselves. Feminism becomes less of a daunting topic in her words. It's like you're listening to a wise woman in your family. When I first learned about feminism it seemed like an ideology that was made by and for white, intellectual women. I feel connected to her work because of the nuances she touches on that regard the Black American and the African experience in America. Ultimately it's not about negating or discrediting any woman – it's about celebrating all women. Reading her work finally made me feel like I was included in the conversation." @currentlyelise #Chimamanda #Adichie #feminist #beyonce #tedtalks #sexualpolitics #equality #celebratewomen #unity #weshouldallbefeminists #bookreview #brooklyn #newyork #subwaybookreview @chimamanda.adichie @beyonce @tedxevents I spy @greenlightbklyn

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But for all the ways technology has allowed SBR to flourish — and all the millions of subway riders who gaze faithfully into the screens of their smartphones, Kindles and tablets each day — the project is based largely on the idea that the tangibility of printed books is something to be cherished and shared, especially now in the digital age.

“We talk about the book and then through the book they open up,” Cohen explains. She was once brought to tears after a woman revealed she had lost both a son-in-law and her husband to cancer within six months of each other. “They tell me about their lives and they tell me secrets and they tell me all of these magical things. I don’t think that a tablet or an iPhone can do that in the same way.”

Cohen is a voracious reader herself, juggling three or four books at a time between running Subway Book Review and working for a fledgling mental health start-up. Her subway rides are currently spent in the company of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and at home she dives into Roxane Gay’s 2014 essay collection, Bad Feminist. Despite her love for the G train, she says the L — which serves the newly hip neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick — is among the most literary subway lines in New York.

“I think the L train is an awesome literary train because you get a lot of the young crowd and they’re very excited to share their life and talk to me,” she explains, adding that the B, F and Q trains also feature some of the best books in the five boroughs. “The older crowds are a little suspicious to have their pictures taken.”

Still, Cohen makes it a priority to include both a diverse group of people and a wide variety of texts on her page. On the project’s website, fans can apply to curate a Subway Book Review in their own city, and Cohen says an initial satellite chapter in London should launch by early 2016. Given the purview of the project, she hopes to one day turn Subway Book Review into a published book itself.

“What I’m striving for is to tell true stories without playing up stereotypes or the expected,” Cohen says. “The whole point of Subway Book Review is to say that we’re often too quick to judge someone by whatever may appear on the surface. We’re much more similar and less alone than we sometimes tend to think.”

Check out a few entries of Subway Book Review below:

Repost for Banned Books Week! Drown by Junot Díaz. Laura: "Díaz is a great Dominican writer. His writing is often about being an outsider in a place that should be your home. Drown, is a compilation of those kind of stories. I went to a reading of his when I had just moved to New York from Copenhagen and talked to him afterwards. He has a great style of writing and incorporates Spanish slang which is cool. Sometimes when I speak English I mix a foreign word in there or when I speak Danish I say an English word sometime. The characters in Díaz' stories look for their home, but everything is so different from what they know. I relate to that." @laura_amadeus @riverheadbooks is celebrating #BannedBooksWeek and giving away free books tomorrow, Drown included! Check out their profile on Friday to find out how to enter ✨ #bookloversunite #freedomtoread #subwaybookreview

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Eduardo: "My friend tells me Zadie Smith is working on a movie with a French director right now. She has been getting more and more respect as s writer, as she should. She's post-modern and very smart. I like her books, because they show a lot of diversity and quirkiness of culture. What do I mean by that? Like the spice girls, they have a lovely quirkiness of culture. White Teeth is about a man who tries to commit suicide and realizes he has another life to live. A guy from a halal place interrupts him when he's trying to gas himself in his car and tells him he's not allowed to do it because it's bad for business. The depiction of the situation is very humorous. It makes you realize that every act of life is full of surprises." @eduverandi #zadiesmith #whiteteeth #novel #diversity #culture #humor #book #bookreview #reading #fall #newyork #manhattan #brooklyn #subwaybookreview

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Mariana: "I like that White Girls is so dynamic and that it doesn’t follow a traditional approach to literature. I was particularly interested in this book because Hilton Als is part of the New Museum’s Visionary Speaker series. He will be reading excerpts from a new, unpublished essay on Diane Arbus on September 15. White Girls is an essay and memoir all in one, with a unique insight on American culture, race and gender identity. Hilton Als analyses the influences and kinship he feels to personal and public figures – they range from Truman Capote to Michael Jackson. He makes me want to learn even more about these people and look at their life in a new way. His stories show that self-identity is complex and that through life experiences we can go against what we’re taught to believe." @msalem #newmuseum #hiltonals #whitegirls #dianearbus #identity #essay #memoir #photography #bookreview #newyork #manhattan #subwaybookreview #whatsinyourstrandtote

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. 'kola: "Truman Capote describes a fictionalized true murder that happened in Kansas. For me it's the author who's interesting. He's a great writer and very engaging. If you're into suspense this is not the book for you, because he tells the reader in the first pages who will die and 'who did it'. What captivates me is that Capote is very descriptive about Kansas and its mystery. The book is overdue at the library. I'm paying 25 cents a day now to read it." @apostrophekola #newyork #subwaybookreview #bookreview #book #trumancapote #incoldblood #kansas #whodidit #summerreading #americanclassic @randomhouseofficial

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Kelie: "NPR reported recently that long books are more popular now. People want to invest in the story and like how long it is. What I love about 1Q84 are its two opposing stories and its two different realities – one of which is potentially an illusion. In the story, the way characters know which reality they're living in is by how many moons are in the sky. All Murakami characters are soulful but banal characters. There's depth to them but they are not dramatized. I love Murakami. Lately I've been looking for two moons and think I might be in a two moon reality." @cinders_gallery #newyork #subwaybookreview #book #bookreview #1q84 #harukimurakami #twomoons @npr

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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2015

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