The first time Uli Beutter Cohen approached a stranger about what she was reading, it was on the Q train, shuttling over the Manhattan Bridge on a fateful, frigid December morning in 2013. Beutter Cohen, a documentarian and self-described “professional conversationalist,” was traveling by subway on what she calls “a creative quest,” seeking to generate an idea for a project she could contribute to an artist collective she’d founded.
“Really, truly at that moment, I suddenly noticed how many people were reading books on the subway,” Beutter Cohen said. “New York is such a literary place. There are so many incredible people here with high aspirations and big imaginations. I was sure that a reader could tell me what she was dreaming about in a really fascinating way.”
As she observed the crowd of readers, Beutter Cohen sparked an idea—she would interview commuters about their choice of reading material, and she would document it on social media. That stranger she approached was a young woman named Hana Delong, then a dancer in the Alvin Ailey company heading to a rehearsal in Manhattan. The book was Catching Fire, the second novel in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. After a brief conversation, Beutter Cohen snapped a photo of Delong and her paperback to commemorate the moment, then created the Subway Book Review Instagram account, where she posted about their interaction.
“I wanted to connect with the city in a meaningful way,” Beutter Cohen said. “I wanted to do my work as a documentarian in an iconic New York location, and to create a feeling of togetherness through it.”
Five years later, Subway Book Review is a bona fide social media movement. With almost 115,000 devoted Instagram followers and scores of accolades, including a coveted spot on Glamour’s Instagram Power List, the account continues to attract legions of literary-minded fans—yet the formula remains unchanged from day one. Beutter Cohen prowls subway platforms and train cars in search of readers, with whom she strikes up freewheeling discussions about what they’re reading and what those books mean to them. What emerges from these conversations are spare, soulful portraits of readers holding up a carousel of books old and new, accompanied by capsule reviews, reading recommendations, and touching personal stories.
“What I found in those conversations was that the books indeed said a lot about the readers,” Beutter Cohen said. “They were a really beautiful reflection of someone’s identity and state of mind at that moment in time.”
In May, Subway Book Review celebrated its fifth anniversary with a surprise celebration on the G train. At 7:00 PM, revelers donned iridescent party hats and flooded the train at Metropolitan Avenue to the tune of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” dancing through the train and handing gift-wrapped books to bemused straphangers. Exiting at Bergen Street, they then gathered in the back garden at Warby Parker’s Cobble Hill store, where Ample Hills scooped ice cream, Ovenly handed out cookies, and Abbi Jacobson read aloud from her memoir, I Might Regret This. Speaking fondly of her early twenties spent working odd jobs in New York alongside Broad City co-creator Ilana Glazer, Jacobson spoke of the scrappy spirit that sets New York dreamers apart, and of her admiration for Subway Book Review’s mission. At the end of the evening, guests were dispatched with minimalist black totes emblazoned with white text that read, “Ask Me What I’m Reading.”
Emma Straub, author and owner of Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic, which peddled New York-centric books at the event like E.B. White’s Here is New York, shares Beutter Cohen’s reverence for the startling power of unstructured conversations about books.
“What I like about Subway Book Review is that, like Humans of New York, it allows you to stop and be nosy with a fellow person for a few moments, to ask a question you might not ask in person,” Straub said. “It turns the city into your bookstore, with your fellow riders as booksellers.”
Other celebrity fans of Subway Book Review include Emma Roberts, Phoebe Robinson, and Elizabeth Gilbert. For a certain breed of cultured, plugged-in New Yorker, an encounter with Beutter Cohen looms large as a white whale of social media achievement—after all, an appearance on Subway Book Review connotes good taste and urban savvy, a sense that readers are seeing and being seen. Yet Subway Book Review isn’t a hagiography of the literary set—in fact, Beutter Cohen strives to capture something universal through a diverse assortment of subjects, traveling from end to end across multiple train lines to meet readers from many walks of life. Writer and journalist Glynnis MacNicol said of the project, “Every New Yorker has craned their neck on the subway to figure out what someone is reading. Uli has tapped into that universal, intellectual voyeurism, and turned it into this amazingly engaged community. I was beyond thrilled to discover my book on the feed one day, but actually astounded at its influence and the way it immediately moved book sales.”
On the publisher side, the Subway Book Review Effect MacNicol mentions is a real thing, whether it’s quantifiable or not. In fact, according to May-Zhee Lim of the publicity department at Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, it’s some of the best publicity money can’t buy.
“Having another reader endorse your book publicly on a popular social media account is excellent word-of-mouth marketing,” Lim said. “Readers trust other readers! The comments also help us get a sense of why people are picking up a book and what’s resonating with them the most. We also know that we’re reaching a new audience when we see our books on Subway Book Review—a younger and more diverse readership that we’re otherwise not getting through the more traditional media outlets.”
Beutter Cohen was born in Reicheneck, Germany, a village with a population of less than a thousand inhabitants, to parents who were avid readers and avid travelers. A love of literature and conversation was a family affair, as Beutter Cohen was her mother’s “sidekick” on weekly trips to the library, after which they would spend the walk home striking up conversations with strangers. Beutter Cohen cites her upbringing as integral to Subway Book Review’s DNA.
“I was thinking about what kind of legacy I could continue here and how I could honor what makes my family us,” Beutter Cohen said. “It started as a very personal endeavor to connect with the city, but then I quickly realized that the subway really is New York’s melting pot. There I could really see New York, and see what togetherness looks like.”
In her early twenties, Beutter Cohen moved to Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband founded a creative agency whose clients grew over six years to include Nike and Ace Hotels. These days, when she isn’t reporting underground, she continues her work as a creative consultant, partnering with brands like Away and Warby Parker to write and edit cross-platform lifestyle content.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how we can use digital media to bring real life closer to our hearts,” Beutter Cohen said. “How it can connect us and how we can share experiences through it.”
As it’s grown older and skyrocketed in popularity, Subway Book Review has gone global, expanding its scope to cities like Berlin, Barcelona, Milan, Sydney, London, and Mexico City, where contributors report from underground in Beutter Cohen’s stead.
“How we feel about people we don’t know and places we’ve never been to really depends on the stories that we hear about them,” Beutter Cohen said. “Subway Book Review has become a place that creates togetherness. It’s intended to get people out of their comfort zone, to help them see how the world is changing, and to let books be the reminder that we’re in this great story together and always have been.”
Even as Subway Book Review has undergone seismic expansion, one thing hasn’t changed—it’s as ad-free as ever. From the very beginning, Beutter Cohen has declined to sell the valuable trove of data she’s amassed about city-dwelling readers, as well as to create revenue-generating sponsored posts.
“We’re after honest and truthful reporting,” Beutter Cohen said. “I decided early on to keep the experience authentic, and five years later, that’s still the case.”
In an age of digital distraction, the subway remains a unique place untethered from above-ground reality—a liminal zone of sorts, one where WiFi is non-existent (despite what Andrew Cuomo would tell you) and cell service is spotty at best. For Beutter Cohen, that’s part of its charm.
“The subway can be very cathedral-like,” Beutter Cohen said. “I think that it’s a place where the city has to stand still, even though we’re moving, but we’re standing still as people, and we can come together in an interesting way. There’s this definite magic on the subway that the people that I talk to about their books have described to me.”
As for why Subway Book Review doesn’t profile commuters who read digitally as well as those who read traditional printed books, Beutter Cohen assigns a special magic to the printed book, and she’s also quick to caution readers about the security implications of tablets, phones, and e-readers.
“A printed book is one of the only safe spaces left,” Beutter Cohen said. “Digital life is no longer safe, because I know my data is collected. I know I’m being tracked. I know I don’t have privacy, but with a book I have privacy.”
Any New Yorker besieged by the daily certainty of a loud, crowded, uncomfortable commute knows the allure of hiding behind screens and headphones, of zoning out to a podcast or playlist in hope of making the minutes pass faster. Yet Beutter Cohen is heartened by her subjects’ description of the subway as a sacred space they work hard to preserve—a place where they resolve to unplug from their devices, and to cherish the opportunity to read without distraction.
“A print book is one of the only things you can’t multitask,” Beutter Cohen said. “You have to fully immerse yourself in it. If I’m reading something on my phone screen, I get a notification from Instagram, and there I go. But when I’m on a printed page, I can’t multitask. I have to commit. It’s one of the only single-minded activities left in this world.”
As Beutter Cohen celebrates five years of hard work, connection, and unexpected magic, she’s thinking big picture about what’s next for Subway Book Review. Her vision is boundless, looking ahead to a multimedia-driven future where the project could grow into a book, a podcast, or a television show—or even another offline experience.
“I’m blessed to have public spaces in New York that make people and their stories accessible to me,” Beutter Cohen said. “But we forget that a lot of Americans don’t have that privilege of living in a metropolis. My craziest dream is to turn a bus into something that looks like a subway train car and to drive that thing across America. We can’t just play to the audience where we feel safe. We have to go into the unknown, and we have to try hard to find people who want to connect but don’t have the chance to.”
At its core, whether it’s an Instagram account or a book, a podcast or a cross-country bus, Subway Book Review will endure as a community—a place for surprising and meaningful conversations where readers can see their hearts and minds reflected in books, and in one another.
“We’re in New York because we want to be seen, because we want to see each other, because we’re curious about each other,” Beutter Cohen said. “I always say that having a book on the subway and reading it is reading out loud, because you’re sharing your cover with the world. Your book is an extension of you because it is a reflection of your mind. You’re wearing your story on your sleeve.”