Pop Culture and Media

I asked more than 1,000 New Yorkers to share their favorite books. Here are the 7 most popular recommendations

Uli Beutter Cohen interviewing an NYC subway commuter
Photo: An Rong Xu

Most people think of reading books as an "alone time" activity. But the experience truly comes alive when we talk to other people about the books that are most meaningful to us.

As a documentarian and avid reader, I've spent the past seven years riding every line in the New York City subway system, talking to more than 1,000 commuters about their favorite books — the ones that resonated with them the most, changed their lives, or reflected who they are.

Based on my conversations, here are the seven books that were cited the most:

1. "A Little Life"

By Hanya Yanagihara

This novel follows the lives of four close friends as they pursue post-collegiate success in New York. Over a span of three decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success and pride.

Arjun Dhawan
Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"I read this book for the first time when I married my college sweetheart at 23. We got divorced right before the pandemic, and now I'm reading it again. I want to know how to sustain a relationship with people who don't have to stay with you. How do you rebuild your own little life again?"
-Arjun Dhawan

2. "Sula"

By Toni Morrrison

From Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, "Sula" is about two friends, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio.

Tembe Denton-Hurst
Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"I can always find myself in Morrison's work. And female-centric stories mean a lot to me because as a Black lesbian, I'm always surrounded by women — romantically and emotionally."
-Tembe Denton-Hurst

3. "Talking to Strangers"

By Malcolm Gladwell

Using compelling real-world examples, bestselling author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers — and why they often go wrong.

Kosha Dillz
Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"As someone who does a lot of street performance, I'd say that talking to strangers is a lost art. The whole idea is to stop someone during their day and cheer them up. One, it's a talent. Two, it's a challenge. Three, it's needed in life."
-Kosha Dillz

4. "How to Do Nothing"

By Jenny Odell

This thoughtful book takes a lot at the importance of doing nothing, especially in a capitalist culture that constantly encourages productivity.

Kareem Rahma
Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"Growing up, I've always tried to plan ahead and predict what I should do next to set myself up for success. But I'm not like that anymore. Everything that has happened, I wouldn't have predicted any of it. My new mantra is: Do what's right ... right now."
-Kareem Rahma

5. "Sister Outsider"

By Audre Lorde

In this collection of essays and speeches, Audre Lorde, a poet, novelist and activist, takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. 

Pamela Sneed
Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"We're in dire times, and we need the voice and the wisdom of a Black woman like Audre Lorde, who can articulate the things that we really need to hear, including the fact that poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity. She gives us power, hope and courage."
Pamela Sneed

6. "Becoming"

By Michelle Obama

In her memoir, former first lady Michelle Obama chronicles the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood in Chicago to her time spent at the White House.

Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"As a foster kid who struggled a lot, I have a question for our elected officials and people in power: 'Why aren't you asking us what we need? Why is no one coming to help us?' Michelle shows that after you fall down, you get back up. She urges us to be there for each other and to support our communities."

7. "Pachinko"

By Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family who move to Japan amidst Japanese colonization and political warfare.

Photo: Uli Beutter Cohen

"Min Jin Lee tells these epic, multi-generational stories that span many decades, places and people. I'm a big fan of hers. In this book, she follows the colonization of Korea and describes the ramifications of it. Her questions around migration and citizenship are definitely relevant."

Uli Beutter Cohen is the creator of Subway Book Review and the author of "Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground." Her work has been featured in Esquire, Vogue and The Guardian, among many others. Follow her on Instagram @theubc and @subwaybookreview.

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