Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
One New York transplant documents reading riders on social media—and finds community in the process.
When German-born Uli Beutter Cohen moved to Brooklyn from Portland in 2013, she was instantly fascinated by the social mechanics of her commute. So many bodies are packed into each train car, but everyone is sequestered, steeling themselves for the dense crowds. Whenever she rode the subway, Cohen took stock of the books people perused while leaning against the pole or slouching in a seat. The subway, she realized, is a microcosm. And it’s a library, too.
“Within one car, you can find it all: self-published novelties, the next bestseller, and beloved classics,” she says.
That fascination with passengers' reading material turned into conversations with fellow riders: What are you reading, and why? She started snapping portraits and jotting down riders’ impressions of the books they were reading. Those interactions blossomed into a Tumblr and Instagram account with a robust 30,000 followers.
On a packed car full of people snoozing, scrolling through their phones, or bopping along to music, Cohen is an anomaly. “No New Yorker in their right mind would ever pick the subway as the right place to do this,” she laughs. “I have no regard for the zoning out that people are trying to do.”
But much to her (happy) surprise, passengers seem excited to talk about their books. She doesn’t receive many exasperated sighs or evil glares. She’s found that younger riders seem especially eager to participate, since they're already pretty fluent in the visual media she uses. The older generations “have a higher regard for their privacy and don’t want their picture used online by a stranger,” but are happy about the chance to talk on the subway again, Cohen notes. “People mostly talk to me about how their own lives are reflected in what they’re reading.”
Caitlin, a passenger at the Clinton-Washington stop, confessed:
I saw the title and I'm single. 'The Hermit' made me assume the author is an independent woman who's weathering her circumstances like the rest of us. Her writing is very direct and exposed. It's not frilly at all. This line is a good example: 'I became a man in my dream on the train to Avignon. I did man things ate man snacks wrote man poems I had a penis.' I only read a few of the poems so far and I'll admit it, I was a little bit drunk. Poetry is something I got into recently. I usually read on the train and thought, why not go right into the deep end. Might as well skip the prose.
The biggest obstacle is startling people who have been transported by a book. “Some people take a few minutes to come out of the story they’re reading and give me an account of the world they were just in,” Cohen says.
Choosing her subjects is a mix of luck and stealth. “Sometimes the subway door closes before I can jump on, and that’s over,” says Cohen. “Other times, I get really lucky, and someone who’s standing on one end of the car during rush hour gets off at my stop, and I’ve been eyeing them the whole time.” She met one recent subject, Enrico, on the G train. He was lost in Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.
Enrico was mesmerized by the chronicle of superhuman and stilted memory. “I usually drive, but I'm taking the subway because I can't put it down," he told Cohen.
At the Bedford-Nostrand stop in Brooklyn, a man named Ashley was reading Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass for the fourth or fifth time. “It feels a little bit like looking at a painting,” he said.
A passenger named Gretchen fawned over Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, giving a shoutout to the New York Public Library, where she checked out the novel.
Elise, a rider on the C line, was reading We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because she felt it exposed her to a variety of perspectives about feminism. “Reading her work finally made me feel like I was included in the conversation,” Elise told Cohen.
Combating feelings of isolation is one of the hardest things about being a transcontinental transplant, Cohen notes. The desire to get to know her new community of Fort Greene partly inspired her project: “We’re all sitting in this capsule, and there are lots of interesting people on the subway, and I needed a conversation piece to break the ice,” Cohen says.
She found it. And she’s also managed to forge a sense of serendipity and connectedness during a part of the day that many commuters dread. “I think people here are curious about one another,” she says. “We all want to know what drew us to this island.”