Riding the subway with the 'book spy'
Anonymous but never shy, she spies on New Yorkers in the subway and records their reading habits.
(Page 3 of 3)
"In the publishing world, everyone is always freaking out – you know, 'Why aren't people buying books?' and stuff like that," she says. "But for all this talk about a dying industry, I see people reading all the time. I see tons of readers. And I find that to be uplifting and exciting."Skip to next paragraph
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The first title documented by the Book Spy was "Second Glance," by Jodi Picoult. The train was the N. The reader was "a 20-ish young woman with soft black hair and a warm olive complexion. She wore a fuzzy blue, plaid coat and a peaceful expression." The post was short.
Subsequent posts were longer. At first, Twain considered soliciting sightings from other commuters, but gradually she settled into her own routine – she established a tone (somewhere between archness and jubilance), and refined her own strategy (aggressive but friendly).
"Most people will go to great lengths to not acknowledge their fellow subway riders," Twain told me. "You can get away with a fair amount of nosiness before anyone so much as lifts an eyebrow. If you do get caught, what's the worst that could happen? A conversation between strangers? Heaven forbid."
As we had hoped, the 2 train is rife with readers.
An elegant, well-dressed woman – who steps off the train near Wall Street – is flipping disinterestedly through "Franny and Zooey," by J.D. Salinger. A 20-something woman with the posture of a graduate student is slumped over "The Museum of Innocence," by the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. A denim-clad man peruses the pages of "Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul," by the New Age guru Deepak Chopra. At Union Square, we hop off the 2 train, and climb on the Brooklyn-bound 3 train, which will deposit us back in Park Slope.
All this book spying has exhausted me, and I fall into one of the orange bench seats. Twain elbows me in the stomach and cocks her head toward one shoulder. Near the rear of the car, a teenage girl is flipping through the pages of a novel; a woman, presumably the girl's mother, dozes nearby. But the train is a little wobbly on the rails and the cover is lowered toward the ground, and neither Twain nor I can decipher the entire title, which is written in a looping white cursive script.
"I think it's called 'Alta in the Wings,'" Twain says.
"How about 'Elta in the Wings'?" I suggest.
Twain turns her attention toward her notepad, logging one line of script, and then another. The next week, I log on to the Book Spy, and see that Twain has posted a short item about the book, which turns out to be "Asta in the Wings," a critically acclaimed novel by Jan Elizabeth Watson.
"She bent forward in concentration," Twain has written of the reader in question, "a sleek curtain of hair swaying as she scanned the pages, while her dozing mother rested a heavy head upon her shoulder."
Accurate, lyrical – and a kind of literature of its own.