Riding the subway with the 'book spy'
Anonymous but never shy, she spies on New Yorkers in the subway and records their reading habits.
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From the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the N subway line turns north in the direction of Queens, bends west over the East River, and winds straight up through the center of Manhattan. As subway lines go, the N is a good one – it is relatively uncrowded on weekdays, even during the hectic early-morning and late-afternoon hours, and the Straphangers Campaign recently reported that the N was cleaner than average and extremely unlikely to break down.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in January, I rode the N line with a woman I'll call Parker Twain. Ms. Twain is 24. She has bright, restless eyes and brown hair, which she wears cut straight across her forehead. Twain lives in Brooklyn and works in the offices of a major publishing house in Manhattan. In her spare time, she is a spy. More specifically, she is the Book Spy, an anonymous blogger who spends between 12 and 14 hours on the subway every week, chronicling the reading habits – and sartorial predilections – of her fellow New York commuters.
The typical post on the Book Spy runs between 150 and 200 words. Twain begins by identifying the train where she spotted the book in question – usually a Q or R train, but sometimes an L train, and sometimes an N train. Next, she offers a pithy and colorful description of the reader. (One reader was recently described as "a woman with a friendly smile, mole-spangled cheeks, and excellent bone structure.") Lastly, Twain will offer a couple of comments on the book in question. (On "The Lacuna," by Barbara Kingsolver: "So apparently it's the story of a dude just sort of tumbling around North America in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, just kind of going wherever the wind takes him. Tumble tumble.")
Twain can be a little snarky – she jokes that she has "perfect" taste in books and is thus qualified to pass judgment on the tastes of others. But she is also an unabashed cheerleader for reading in all its forms. "The more I look around," Twain wrote recently, "the more I see people smiling on the train. It's weird, because I've learned to expect glassy-eyed stares and miserable 'I'm-barely-tolerating-this' sort of expressions from my fellow straphangers. Perhaps those who read have well and truly shrugged off the drudgerous spirit that hangs so heavy over the subway. Hooray for books!"
According to the Department of City Planning, the average resident of New York City spends 40 minutes on his or her commute, which is about 15 minutes longer than the national norm. New Yorkers have a complex relationship with the subway. On the one hand, most of us love to complain about our hellish daily journeys – the dilapidated stations; the stench and the peeling paint; the crowded cars; the guy who jammed his elbow into our gut; the woman who ate a Big Mac six inches from our ear, just close enough that we could hear each wet chomp. (It says a lot that one of the most popular videos among New Yorkers in January was a clip of a rat apparently alighting on the face of a subway commuter.)