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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On the other hand, New York is a big and frantic city, and New Yorkers are busy and overworked people, and sometimes the 40-minute commute is the only 40 minutes of downtime we get all day. On most subway lines, you can't receive calls, texts, or e-mails. So as straphangers, we spend a lot of time indulging in decidedly prehistoric forms of entertainment. We stare. We people-watch. We talk to fellow riders on those rare occasions when we know them – or want to. And we read. New York commuters are great readers – stolid, steadfast, and immune to distraction. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail, nor three-piece mariachi band shall keep us from our reading.Skip to next paragraph
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We read on our Kindles, our iPhones, and our iPads. We read books, magazines, novels, newspapers. We read the spines of the books being read by the commuters in the bench opposite ours. We sneak furtive glances at Kindle screens. In fact, one could make the argument that the only thing New Yorkers read as much as their own books is other people's books.
And that's where the Book Spy comes into the picture.
For a Saturday afternoon, the N train is jammed, and Twain and I squeeze into a bench near the window, behind a pair of elderly Eastern European men, both of whom clutch rolled-up newspapers emblazoned with Cyrillic script. I look around frantically for the nearest book reader (newspapers don't count), but Twain, who is a much better spy than I am, has already found her quarry – a dark-haired woman peering intently at a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader.
"Can you see the title?" Twain asks in a stage whisper.
When I shake my head, Twain stands up and leans conspicuously over the screen of the Nook, her brow furrowed in concentration. This is how it should be, she tells me later in an e-mail message – a true Book Spy must never be skittish. "Don a mask of indifference," she explains. "You don't care what other people are doing, you don't care about anything. You are far too Busy and Important for such foolishness. If you believe it, so will the reader, and once he or she feels secure that no one's watching, you can swoop in like a Ninja-Eagle and purloin the information you desire."
Unfortunately for us, no matter how close Twain gets to the Nook – no matter how much Ninja-Eagle magic she invokes – she can't make out a title, so we decide to change trains at Atlantic, in hopes of finding a more plentiful supply of readers.
The Atlantic station is buzzing with energy – near the turnstiles, a jug band is performing for a small group of bystanders, and past the jug band, down a long flight of stairs, a man is handing out pamphlets on the coming of the apocalypse. We settle on a northbound 2 train, which will take us up through Union Square, one of the busiest parts of lower Manhattan.
Parker Twain is a woman of many ideas. In fact, she is a woman of so many ideas that she keeps a jar on her office desk into which she regularly deposits crumpled-up pieces of paper, each one bearing a kernel of inspiration for a new book, a new blog, a new scheme to take over the world. For a long time, the Book Spy project existed only as a piece of paper in a jar. And then in November of last year – "on that fateful dark afternoon" – Twain decided to inaugurate her career in espionage. Her mission, as she saw it, was simple: Be a book evangelist. Draw attention to random acts of reading.