Uli Beutter Cohen headshot

Photo by Bridget Badore

Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Uli Beutter Cohen, creator of Subway Book Review, about her upcoming book Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground. Between the Lines collects over 170 interviews from the acclaimed social media movement that highlights books and the people who cherish them. We spoke with Uli about how the idea for Subway Book Review developed, how Subway Book Review has evolved since its creation, and what she’s reading now. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Uli is up until the 10:41 mark).

On the Creation of Subway Book Review

“My goal was to document voices that were not heard the same way that others were, and I wanted to make sure to hand a mic to my local neighbors, and to hear how they were living life. Of course, books are a wonderful, wonderful—not just icebreaker—but a shared love interest, and as a fellow bookworm, I found that readers were just the most incredible, insightful people who had a lot to say.”

On the Evolution of Subway Book Review Over Time

“In the beginning, there was such a lack of a diverse chorus of individual voices that was readily available in media and in entertainment, and even in the types of books that were being published, and so when I started that was my main goal, and my main ambition was to create a more equal playing field. I think that things have changed—of course, we still have an incredibly long way to go. I believe that now, what I’m looking for is to weave those voices into a big chorus, because now we need to come together as individuals and we need to figure out very quickly, as a human collective, what we want our future to be.

“I used to be able to ride a train and pick up some conversations with strangers very easily before the pandemic. When the pandemic kicked in, I really started to seek out people much more. . . . It became a really loving and surprising experience during a time when many people were more isolated than ever before, and there were certainly many hurdles built into that.”

On Turning the Subway Book Review Movement into Between the Lines

“The book really, truly, is a labor of love in the form of not just being thoughtful with ‘who are the 170 New Yorkers that we’re going to hear from,’ and making that decision, but also considering. . . the neighborhoods that needed to be represented, and to consider the age groups that are represented, to consider the backgrounds that are represented.

“It really gave me a chance to almost take people with me on the subway, and let them ride along with me. The surprise and delight is very present in the chapters, and I was able to expand the conversations much beyond what an Instagram caption would allow me to do.”

On What She’s Reading Now

“Things are busy, but we’ve always got to be reading—even if it’s like, a little poem on the side, or if we have one quick little essay that’s making our day. Right now, I’m reading Kei Miller’s Things I Have Withheld. Kei is an incredible Jamaican poet, essayist, and novelist. . . . This is a book about secrets, which obviously is so fascinating, and so good to read about.

“It’s a book to be savored, and I only got it a couple of days ago, because the consideration is also, how do secrets affect our bodies, and what stays in the body beyond the surface? It is just such a tremendous, beautiful essay collection, and also wonderful to just have with you at all times, and maybe, you know, give a little read on the train! I would love to run into someone with this book.”