A New York artist created a new kind of social network by leaving a trail of books around the city.
Inside the Times Square subway station, amid the throngs of people making their way to work or school or the many tourist attractions on 42nd Street, a tall stack of books stands precariously piled in the middle of a platform. A note sits on top, making an offering to passersby:
“Take a book. Any book. Email the artist when you’ve finished it.”
Shaheryar Malik, a New York-based art director and artist, has been stacking his books all over New York City this way for more than a year. He’s left them everywhere: in elevators, in parks, on random sidewalks, and near tourist attractions like the Brooklyn Bridge, the High Line, and Central Park.
Inside each book, Malik leaves a bookmark with his email written on it, hoping to hear from the person who decides to pick it up. He doesn’t stick around to see if anybody takes one, and he never comes back to check on his pile. “I left them all in the world, just to see what the world does with them,” Malik says. “I liked the idea of that.”
The Reading Project started last spring when Malik, who works for a New York ad agency, was on a walk near the Brooklyn Bridge and had the impulse to take a selfie. “I started thinking, what can I do differently? Everybody takes a picture of Brooklyn Bridge. Nowadays we’re always sharing things, and some of them are so pointless,” Malik says. “I wanted to know: do people still share physical things? Do people still look at art?”
He decided to find out. Each morning, Malik selected books from the shelves in his home, making sure to pick a wide variety of titles and genres. Then he lugged and stacked them carefully in his chosen place, placing his note on top.
The books, in Malik’s mind, are a way to share parts of his experience with a city that rarely stops—and to take part in real-world connection. “Everybody’s so behind their phones all the time, including myself,” Malik says. “I wanted to share something that had a little more meaning to it.”
Malik estimates that by now, he’s left 250 of his own books on the streets of New York. He’s gotten about 50 emails back from people who’ve picked the books up, and they’ve ended up in 30 different countries, from London to Belgium to Singapore, he says.
His favorite part of the project is knowing that parts of his own life experiences have made it all the way around the world, and have become part of other people’s lives. “A book is more than an image,” he says. “I owned that book, I read it, and I loved it or I hated it. I really liked the idea of other people picking it up and taking it with them, like it was this physical thing to share.”