Between the Lines

Between the Lines coverBetween the Lines: Stories from the Underground
Uli Beutter Cohen
Simon & Schuster (November 9, 2021), 381 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $12.49

Uli Beutter Cohen is a German who lived in California and then moved to New York City. She learned to love the subway, and one day got up the courage to ask another passenger what they were reading. That led to her founding the Subway Book Review, which in turn led to her compiling this book.

Between the Lines is unique in its format. The heading for each chapter is the name of the person she interviews. The subhead is the title and author of the book the person is reading. The content of the chapter is a transcript of the exchange between Cohen and the subway rider, in which the rider talks both about the book they are reading and their own personal lives. Most chapters contain a photo of the person holding up a copy of the book they were reading at the subway station where Cohen interviewed them. Each chapter is only two or three pages.

Cohen conducted the interviews between 2015 and 2020. She admits that CODID-19 impacted her work and that she noticed an increase in the number of people reading e-books. You wouldn’t know that reading the book. She provides a book laden with interviews (the chapters are not numbered), and many of the interviews took place in 2020.

What you won’t find in the book is wall street executives, Madison Avenue advertising people, or professors from Columbia University. Instead she interviews actors, composers, writers, and social activists. She talks to immigrants, people of color, lawbreakers, gay men, and lesbians. Each has his or her own story.

There are interconnections. Cohen interviews the author Roxanne Gay, whom she found reading Edith Wharton on the subway, and the owner of the Strand Bookstore reading one of Gay’s books.

There are flashes of insight throughout the book. One subway rider quotes Alan Watts saying, “We live in a time of unusual insecurity,” and points out that the quote is from 1951. Another rider tells Cohen, “Punjabi migrant workers helped to build the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s,” and questions why they were not acknowledged along with the Chinese. Another mixes the historical with the fictional: “When I was younger, my heroes were Spider-Man, X-Men, Malcolm X, and MLK. They were all sticking up for the little guy, creating unity through equity and justice.”

Nuance and complexity abound. One subway rider tells Cohen:

quoteI’m an Ashkenazi Jew who was born in ’84 to a single lesbian mom in Tennessee, where it was illegal for her to be in possession of the sperm she used to get pregnant with me. As a queer spawn born into a gay family in the South, I have resistance in my DNA. I know that Black liberation is my liberation, too.

If you find the complexity and diversity of humankind fascinating, there is plenty of that for you in Between the Lines.

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