Subway Book Review’s Uli Beutter Cohen talks about community, NYC and the books that are keeping her inspired.
– KEYS SOULCARE
For the last five years, Uli Buetter Cohen has asked readers on the New York City subway, a simple question: “What are you reading?” Accompanied by a beautiful black-and-white portrait, she shares the stories of their book picks — and their lives — on her Instagram series, Subway Book Review. Uli’s SBR series has gained attention from readers all over the world, hoping to discover their next great book love.
Unsurprisingly, Uli navitaged sheltering in place with a renewed passion for sparking human connection: creating a bi-weekly Instagram Live series with authors fro Jason Reynolds to Jay Manuel, and first venturing from home to participate in the racial justice demonstrations in New York, Washington, D.C., and more.
We caught up with Uli to talk about her current vision and the books that are on her short list. They happened to be about NYC, of course, the city she loves now more than ever.
You do so many things. How do you describe yourself?
I identify as a documentarian, as a conversationalist, and as someone who is interested in talking to the people who make New York City the amazing place that it is. But I’m just a classic, eternal “seeker”, collecting personal stories that together weave a song about who we are as people. Like us all, I contain multitudes! I hope that my work reflects that, too.
You conduct your interviews on the literal subway platform, which shelter-in-place changed so dramatically in a matter of weeks. How else did it affect your work?
All of our lives have changed so drastically. Obviously riding the subway and perusing the trains and platforms for unsuspecting readers is not happening, and it hasn’t happened for seven months now.
The first time that I came [outside], from sheltering at home was to go to a protest, and it was really, really magnificent to go from full-on isolation to that shared experience.
What are you working on now?
As things started to open back up, I’ve turned to recording more conversations. I held an open call where people could kind of digitally “raise their hand” from the SBR community and meet up for an interview. People who have been looking for me on the subway trains were able to say, “Hey, come meet me at my station.”
I wanted to turn the table a little bit and let people take back some creative control in a time when so many of us have experienced such a loss of it. I had lots of beautiful people who say, “I’ve been legit looking for you for five years! And this is like a bucket list item for me. During a pandemic, who would have thought?!”
What lessons are you learning in this moment?
I think if 2020 opens up anything for us, it’s that we’re not just here to protect our damn selves and grow just for ourselves. We’re here to protect other people’s bodies and to let other bodies shine as much as our own, and celebrate each other as a big giant, dysfunctional human family.
You’re currently writing a book, Between the Lines, that will be published by Simon & Schuster. In your downtime, what are you reading?
When you’re creating anything, sometimes there comes a time when you have to get very specific with what you consume. I want to read about New York. I want to watch documentaries about personalities. Here is a sample of my list:
1. The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead Whitehead gives us such an incredible visualization of space and emotions in New York City, which is so valuable, especially during this time. Remember seeking shelter under a crowded awning during a thunderstorm?
2. Subway by Bruce Davidson He is a tremendous street photographer who did a beautiful series on the subway that’s giving me a lot of joy.
3. M Train by Patti Smith “M” is the “mind train” that moves us through life and the experiences that can stop us in our tracks —like loss — which is very relatable always and particularly right now.
4. Back In the Days by Jamel Shabazz and Ernie Paniccioli Jamel Shabazz is an iconic New York City photographer and his IG account is majorly nostalgic for anyone who has ever loved New York. Mordechai Rubenstein told me about this book. I’m obsessed.
5. Severance by Ling Ma Severance describes the city during an imagined pandemic-future. It’s fantastic and speaks to what we hold on to when everything else falls away, and how we can find ourselves when that happens.
6. Luster by Raven Laelani Raven Leilani takes us into contemporary New York and into a love triangle, but the story is really all about our perception of ownership, family, and success. It’s full of layers and so good.
7. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin If you’re a sci-fi lover, this book is for you. Reading it made me realize that New York City always belongs to the future because part of it is always dying and then rebirthing itself.
8. America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir De Beauvoir arrives in New York in 1947 and discovers the U.S. through a feminist, existentialist lens. Her book will remind you of On The Road which [Jack] Kerouac actually wrote a decade later.
Have any personal book favorites on this list, or more to share? Add them to our list in the comments!