Riding the subway with the 'book spy'

Anonymous but never shy, she spies on New Yorkers in the subway and records their reading habits.

photo Illustration by Ann Hermes/Staff

Chapter 1.

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!"

Chapter 2.

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.)

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.

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.

Chapter 3.

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.

Chapter 4.

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.

"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."

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."

Chapter 5.

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.

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