When Uli Beutter Cohen approached a book-toting stranger on a New York subway in 2013, she had no way of knowing that one brief exchange—about the book and the reader’s own story—would lead to another. She has since collected hundreds of conversations with readers underground for her global social media project, Subway Book Review. Today, Subway Book Review boasts over 150,000 followers and counts London, Mexico City, Sydney, Milan and Delhi among its growing roster of cities. The Woolf’s D.B. Miller spoke with the German-born, New York-based creator about the project, its future, and her unabashed belief in light at the end of the world’s many tunnels.
Could you tell us a little more about the origins of Subway Book Review?
When I moved to New York City, I started the project to connect with the city and the people who live here. New York is known as a destination for dreamers and people wanting to make ‘it’ happen. For me, a book is an amazing way to get to know someone instantly because it’s a reflection of their mind and their identity at a specific moment in time. I thought I could learn a thing or two about living in the City by talking to these readers. When I had the idea to capture and share the conversations I was having, the response was pretty great, so I didn’t stop and here we are, almost five years later.
How surprised were you by the way people talked not only about the books, but themselves?
I often hear: “You’re the first person who is asking me about myself in weeks.” I hear this in New York and in cities all over the world when I travel for Subway Book Review. Social media constantly asks us: “What’s on your mind?” But for many people, it’s becoming rare that another person makes time and space for them in a real one-on-one conversation. We’re all starved for attention. That sounds like an oxymoron because we’ve never lived more public lives, but it’s true. We all desperately want to be seen for who we really are. When you read a book, of course it’s a portal to the lives of the characters, but it’s also a portal to your own life. A book is an expression that we want to belong. When I see someone reading a book in public, that’s my signal to let them know I see that you want to belong, and I’m going to talk to you about it.
Do you think people behave differently underground?
Yes, we do behave differently, because underground we have to stand still. In a gigantic metropolis like New York City, every day millions of people are passing each other on the street. On the subway, we can actually see each other and take stock of who’s around us. That’s why I’m looking for contributors in more cities with a metro or subway. The underground is a lifeline and a connector in more than the literal sense. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time underground can tell you that it’s a place where a special and very magical thing happens that is hard to put into words. To me, the underground is my church, and my office, and my happy place.
Image from Subway Book Review Instagram account courtesy Elisa Torello, Milan
Could you tell us more about the role of Subway Book Review in the context of the literary world?
As a huge reader since childhood, I value the literary world and what it stands for. And I’m so happy that it’s been starting to wake up over the last years in terms of how many diverse people are out there looking for stories that speak to them, and that the straight-white-male voice is by far not the only one that sells. What Subway Book Review has done is to visualize, for the first time, what today’s readers look like, how they’re living, and what kind of stories they’re looking for. This is unique compared to other platforms, which are either driven by a single critic or mass opinion, which is like sand on the beach. I wanted to create a diverse space, where seemingly random people of different backgrounds and ages can talk freely about their experiences and identities.
Five years in, what do you think drives you to keep Subway Book Review going?
Doing Subway Book Review is my way of convincing myself that people are good. That’s at the core of it. It’s very easy to lose hope or feel discouraged by society at large. I believe that when we go back to what makes an individual ‘human’, that’s when we feel really good. That’s when the world makes a lot more sense.
Do you feel the project has become even more urgent, with all that’s going on in the world?
Absolutely. News is fear-based, and we have more news in our lives than ever before because we have more access to more information. And anger drives engagement on the Internet. Messing with people’s egos is what makes social media work. Of course, the ability to reach each other online and through social media is amazing and can be insanely positive. But as a creator and conversationalist, I can’t just blindly participate in it. For me, that means claiming and creating space that counters the negative aspects of our digital lives.
In a sense, you could say that the project really does come from a place of darkness.
And I want to be the light at the end of the tunnel! (Laughs) It’s what people want and are looking for, especially thirteen-, fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. A lot of teens I interview tell me that they feel quite lonely and not safe to explore their identity in their digital lives—they’re very aware that their data is being recorded and that they’re being tracked. Just like everyone else, they want to explore and feel free. Many of the teens I talk to seem to get their freedom and find their safe space in the form of reading books. This is my interpretation of course, but so far, it has proven to be on point.
How do you see Subway Book Review developing?
Having a presence in more cities will help us have a broader global point of view. I’m launching Subway Book Review Kids, which will feature kids from the age of whenever-they-start-reading to twelve. I’m also working on a variety of projects that are too early to talk about, but let’s say I’m grateful for all support towards expansion. Subway Book Review is an independent, self-funded project and all contributors, myself included, are volunteers. We do it because we believe in it.
The readers we talk to are awesome and have so much to share. I just did a book review with a woman in New York City who was reading Harry Potter. She said that she believes Harry’s story has touched so many because of its undiluted message of love, unity and friendship, and that a message that pure is revolutionary in a time when people are sarcastic and constantly moderate their enthusiasm. I was like: “Yes! Blow your enthusiasm up! Make it as big as you can! Vibrate on a really loving frequency and give it to as many people as you can!”
And on that upbeat note, I think it’s time for The Woolf special question: What is one of your favorite works of fiction, and why?
Lately, I’ve been reading about women discovering their power despite their circumstances. Writers like Yaa Gyasi, Mirna Funk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Guadalupe Nettel and Jeannette Walls have been speaking to me and giving me a lot to think about.
Sign up for The Woolf newsletter to receive updates about writers’ meet-ups and workshops, and new issues of The Woolf Quarterly.