The New York City subway is not what most people would call their happy place. Most people can’t wait to get their journey over with. Bodies are squeezed past closing doors and into funny shapes once they make it inside. Hands grab for something to hold on to, feeling for a spot that’s not warm or wet. Faces are stuffed into armpits. Sometimes a bag or a limb gets caught in a closing door. And this is just a regular Monday.
You might be wondering why I happily spend every free minute I have on the subway, getting pummeled by my fellow New Yorkers, in an underground system that’s unpredictable (the F train is now running on the A line and the C is no longer running at all) and full of germs.
These were things that worried me too, until I realized that the subway is an excellent place to observe the reading culture of the city. Above ground, whole neighborhoods seem to change overnight. On the subway, New York stands still. Until recently there wasn’t a lick of WiFi signal to be found underground, which makes it the perfect place for connoisseurs of the analogue lifestyle: the people who read books on the subway.
Aside from the expected bestsellers, I noticed readers with literary masterpieces, feminist poetry, art books, self-help books, memoirs, old classics and advanced reading copies. Phones and e-readers are snubbed in favor of printed books and the people lugging them around don’t seem to be burdened at all. They dive into another world in the middle of rush hour. “These people,” I thought, “I can probably learn a lot from.”
It was December 2013, and the idea to talk to these strangers about their books just wouldn’t leave me alone.
It nagged at me. Being German, the ladder really didn’t feel like a small task at all. But the next time I saw a stranger with a book, I forced myself to jump at the opportunity.
It was a short and awkward conversation with a young woman named Hana about “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins. Our entire talk was two sentences long and lasted one stop on the B train, but I was hooked. This unexpected conversation was electrifying. I followed my instinct to type what she had told me into my phone and to take a picture of Hana. The next time, the stranger and I spoke a little bit longer. I took a better picture. And I posted the story on social media. That’s when Subway Book Review was born.
By now, I’ve spoken to hundreds of readers of all ages and all backgrounds. WiFi has infiltrated the underground and readers are much harder to find, but when I do, it’s like finding a treasure: Every book reflects not only the writer’s, but also the reader’s life.
There’s Madge, reading “So Long See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell, who lost her husband and son-in-law to cancer within six months of each other. There’s Kamau, reading “New York Burning” by Jill Lepore. There’s Jenna, a tech and culture journalist, reading feminist sci-fi by Kelly Link. There’s Tarek, a refugee and filmmaker from Iraq, reading an art book about the oil crisis in the Middle East called “Fresh Hell.”
In doing Subway Book Review, I started to see people differently. Judging someone by their book cover is no longer an option. Every person has a story, and the more people I speak with, the more I see this great human storyline emerging that connects us. I wonder what actually divides us, when there are so many things we have in common. We all want to be seen. We all want to be understood. We all want to be free.
I started to see public spaces differently. We usually limit conversations to predetermined environments. We talk to each other at a work event or at school. We leave comments for each other on social media. Connecting with a stranger on the subway made me understand that any place is the right place to be interested and have empathy for someone.
I started to see myself differently. This world, this story — it’s our shared heritage. The people around me are my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my grandmothers and grandfathers. I’m part of their story just like they’re part of mine. They are simple. They are complicated. They are afraid. They are full of love. Just like you and me.