â€œDonâ€™t ask what New York can do for you. Find out what you can give to New York.â€
Such was the advice a friend gave Uli Beutter Cohen upon her imminent move to New York City. Beutter Cohen swapped south Germany for the US 14 years ago, spending the majority of that time on the west coast before deciding to make the move east. But she had reservations about the move. â€œIâ€™m not kidding: I was very afraid of the subway,â€ she says. â€œI thought: how can anyone navigate it? So, [before moving, I went] and forced myself to take a ride on the G train.â€
New Yorkers would probably be astonished at the possibility of someone romanticizing that particular line, which travels between Queens and Brooklyn and is famous for its smaller trains, frequent disruptions and poor service (although statistically that characterisation isnâ€™t accurate). But â€œthere was something magical that happened thereâ€ for Uli. She remembers the train looking â€œlike a caterpillarâ€ coming out of a tunnel. Her fascination with the subway prompted her to start an Instagram account called Subway Book Review in December, which later developed into a Tumblr. With almost 45,000 followers and counting, the account features book recommendations from strangers, pictured on the subway with the books they are reading.
It all started after she was immediately struck by â€œhow quiet the subway is in New York. People have this unspoken code of conduct, even on packed trains,â€ she explains. â€œYou have this image of New Yorkers â€“ so chatty, and curious, and I thought: â€˜It canâ€™t be that Iâ€™m standing in front of all these people and not talking to them.â€™â€ Books became an excuse to start conversations â€“ and she is amazed at â€œhow much of peopleâ€™s lives is connected to the books theyâ€™re readingâ€. The project is giving Beutter Cohen, who â€œabove groundâ€ works for mental health start-up Everbliss, a new sense of purpose. â€œOlder New Yorkers have told me that Iâ€™m bringing something back to the subway that is getting lost.â€
After almost two years running the project, she has figured out that some lines are better than others when it comes to literary rides, and there are trains she avoids when scouting for bookworms: â€œFor some reason, the numbered ones arenâ€™t ideal. The G and the F are amazing book lines.â€
Open call for new cities
Beutter Cohenâ€™s plan is to expand the project to other cities in 2016. For that, sheâ€™s just launched a call-out for people who might want to become chapter curators for their own city. Anyone who wants to apply can do it here.
Some of Uli Beutter Cohenâ€™s favourite recommendations
You can see more here.