Subway Book Review: A Project Visualizing What We Read, How, and Why

I recently came across an article in The Village Voice about a social media project titled Subway Book Review: Book Reviews with Strangers on the Subway that documents what individuals read on the subway and why. On a Facebook page, Instagram, and Tumblr, project creator Uli Beutter Cohen posts photos of individuals holding the books they are reading and a quotation from the individual relating something about their connection to and impressions of the book. In doing this, Cohen intervenes in public spaces, entering uninvited into the personal space of strangers, disrupting the convention of people keeping to themselves on the subway. The results of her inquiries about books illustrate a diversity of literary interests and cultivate a sense of humanity through books as site of shared experiences and emotions. As a whole, Subway Book Review visualizes and endorses Manhattan’s culture of reading, and it even goes so far as to participate directly in this culture, initiating dialogue that digs deeper than just that of a book review.

It doesn’t surprise me that Cohen is a relative newcomer to New York (she hails from Germany), because Manhattan natives are more accustomed to the culture of reading during a commute. Previous summers in Latin America and my time now in Mexico are reminding me that this reading culture is not a global phenomenon; the main activity I witness on the metrobus and underground subway system in Mexico City is women applying their heavy makeup (I ride in women’s only cars, so I can’t attest to how men pass the time), often while standing and bumping along. But visits to Manhattan and plenty of time on the metro in NYC and Boston demonstrated for me that in many large U.S. cities, reading on public transit commutes is widespread.

The individuals she approaches end up sharing information about their hopes, fears, and core values, typically in a lighthearted and concise way.

As an avid reader, I try to sneak a peek of the cover page or binding of books I see others reading on planes, trains, or in parks and cafes, and Cohen’s project indulges my curiosity about what other people are reading. And her project even provides the juicy information I cannot glean from simply identifying what others are reading: she investigates why these people were drawn to particular books and how they are enjoying the book so far. I love to ask friends about books they’ve read, their descriptions often revealing qualities about both them and the book that inspire fresh dialogue, and Cohen’s captions tap into this as well; as she states in her interview with Village Voice, “through the book they open up.” The individuals she approaches end up sharing information about their hopes, fears, and core values, typically in a lighthearted and concise way.

The quotations Cohen includes alongside the images comment on various components of reading and interpreting a book, such as how one finds a book (Was it recommended by someone special? Was it given as a gift, thus taking on the role of an object with a material history and additional sentimental value?) and how one’s thinking changes as they read (How has the book affected this person? Are they planning to learn more about the topic?). On the whole, these comments reflect a general openness that restores one’s faith in humanity. While not all associations with books are uplifting, sharing sobering associations with a book creates a sense of books as actively helping us work through difficult circumstances, an overall positive message of the impact of engaging with books. As global trends suggest a phasing out of print media, Subway Book Review and it’s focus on print copies of books insists on the power of reading and of books “the old-fashioned way.”

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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Joseph: "I'm a high school math teacher and bought this book for a student who doesn't like to read. This is a collection of short stories. I thought it might be an easier format to help her find an interest in reading. All I know is that the book is about a young Latino lady growing up in Chicago and that the stories are age appropriate. I'm helping this student because she does well in math, but she told me she doesn't enjoy reading. I want to help her pass the state exams. We'll see, hopefully it will work." #BeAwesomeToSomebody #newyork #nyc #bookreview #subwaybookreview #book #love #reading #subway #cisneros #houseonmangostreet #novel #bookloversunite #author #comingofage #YA #readinglist #list #readingisawesome #igers #bookworm #instagood #follow #instabook #vsco #coolteacher

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Madge has been a long time reader and supporter of Subway Book Review. I was thrilled to hear she was coming to New York. We met underground and she told me her story which touched me deeply. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Madge: "William Maxwell was the fiction editor of the New Yorker for a long time and mentored a lot of awesome American writers. I'm only into chapter 3. It starts with the murder of a tenant farmer. The narrator is telling the story fifty years later. He leads you through his childhood and the death of his mother and how he met the son of the man who killed the farmer. It's not a mystery. Maxwell gives you this information right at the beginning. His reminiscence of how his mother died is just heartbreaking. I don't know if I feel that way because I lost someone. Last Fall, my husband and my son-in-law passed within six weeks of each other because of cancer. The feeling is still very raw. The author's description of loss perfectly explains my feelings. Someone said: grief is the presence of absence. This is very true. My daughter Nora really got the double whammy having lost her father and shortly thereafter her own husband. I'm in New York to support her. She is here to run the half marathon for the American Cancer Society. She also writes a blog:" @madgemc @noraborealis #NYCHalf15 #halfmarathon #solongseeyoutomorrow #williammaxwell #thenewyorker #fiction #grief #whoareyourunningfor #acs #newyork #subwaybookreview Thank you Madge, and so long 💕

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Repost for Banned Books Week! The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Melissa: "I don't know much about the story yet. It's set in Afghanistan during the war. I heard so many good reviews about it, but was reluctant to read it. My friend, who is Arab, really tried to convince me to read it. Two days ago I found this book in a trash can. I was sad to see it there, but also felt lucky and like it was a good sign. I'm happy to share my friend's culture - she taught me some Arabic words and I'm able to understand them in the book, which is great and important to me." @riverheadbooks is doing an awesome giveaway to celebrate #BannedBooksWeek ✨ check out their profile to find out how to enter 💕📖💕 #freedomtoread

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