Subway Book Review: Curious Instagrammer features commuters and the books they're reading

Uli Beutter Cohen wants to know what New Yorkers are reading.

Five years ago, she started Subway Book Review, an Instagram account featuring photos of straphangers with their current reads. It now counts some 114,000 followers.

"Like fashion or food, books are something that have been in our lives for centuries," Cohen told FOX 5 NY while riding the L train on a recent afternoon. "They're relatable and something to get to know each other through."

She spends several hours at a time riding the subways asking people if they're carrying any books with them. If so, she interviews them about the book and their lives, and photographs the riders for the Instagram account.

Her goal is not just to highlight the books but the stories of the people reading them.

So when she met Patrizia Vasquez on a downtown A train, she was just as interested in her work as an immigration attorney as the novel Vasquez was halfway through.

"We're in a city of strangers and I think it's important we get to know each other," Cohen said of the conversations she has with her subjects.

Many of those subjects said that while the initial approach can be surprising, it is an interesting encounter.

"Here altogether in the subway, we don't usually talk, so when someone comes and says, 'I'm interested in what you're reading,' it's nice," Vasquez said.

Cohen, a freelance writer, is conscious of featuring a diverse body of readers and includes as many ages and backgrounds as she can find.  She said the subway was an obvious backdrop for the project.

"The subway is the one place where a New Yorker has to stay still and be subject to the MTA, so to me it's a fabulous place to see the New Yorkers that live here," she said. "More often than not someone has time to tell me a story."

Cohen also has colleagues documenting stories on mass transit systems in seven other cities around the world. She said she'd love to translate the project to other media, whether a book, podcast, or TV show.