Beutter Cohen, founder of the Subway Book Review, finds out what New Yorkers are reading in Between the Lines (Simon & Schuster, Oct.).
How did you start Subway Book Review?
It seems so far away at this point because I started it over seven years ago. If you think back to 2013, we were living in a vastly different time than we are today—I wanted to really document who New York was at its heart and at its mind. And for me, there was just no better person to speak with than one of the mystical readers in the underground. And there was no Wi-Fi on the train, so you had this abundance of book-reading strangers who were onto something because in the middle of rush hour, they knew how to dive into another world. So I thought, let’s document these people and what’s on their mind, but also who they are and who they want to become.
Why use books as the focal point of your interviews?
To me, the act of reading is not complete when you as an individual close a book—the real experience of a book is complete when you start to talk with someone else about it. When you let the characters in the story come alive between you and a group or other individuals. If you can converse about a book that has deeply touched both of you, or has deeply angered both of you, or has made you fall in love, you will have a completely different view of each other. And you can’t multitask a book. A book really, truly demands your entire being to be immersed in it. And I think that’s why when we speak about it, it does something very magical for us.
Which interview in the book surprised you most?
There are definitely individuals in there that are just so fun and so fantastic, like Harmonica Sunbeam, speaking about her experience as a drag queen who also reads to kids as part of drag queen story hour. But what really surprised me as I was creating the book was how many people were unknowingly in conversation with one another, unconsciously handing the mic to each other. The most fascinating thing was when two people would start talking to each other and I got to put them in conversation.
Why is this book important right now?
It offers a moment where we’re reminded that we’re not each other’s enemies, but we are meant to be a wonder for each other. And that we’re meant to love each other’s stories and to marvel at them. The things that humanity can do together when we’re rooting for each other are insane. We need miracles now, and in order for that, we have to believe in each other, and to believe in each other, we have to find some sense of awe and wonder. And that’s what this book is giving you.