Underground New York Public Library

The Underground New York Public Library is a visual library featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways.
This project is not affiliated with The New York Public Library


Find UNYPL on:

"The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams," by Deepak Chopra

Borrow I Read

She is the last reader who I photographed in 2012. I went up to her after I took the shot, to ask if it was alright with her. She asked me if I’m the blogger who takes pictures of people reading on the subway. I said yes and she shook my hand so warmly. It’s a deep feeling, to connect with people who I’m already connected to somehow, and I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful moment to wrap up my underground shooting for the year. When it was time for my stop on the train, she looked up again and wished me Happy Holidays. I was already mentally out the door though, and I just sort of waved without responding. So this is a note to her, but also to everyone here: I wish you a Happy New Year, with light, love, and the fruition of your dreams in 2013!

"The Power of Now," by Eckhart Tolle

Borrow I Read

I was walking behind him, absentmindedly looking as he wheeled his cart along the platform. He slowed down and I was about to pass him by when I noticed that his cart was painted with the titles of Eckhart Tolle’s books. So I went beside him and said hello. He stopped and turned fully towards me with a smile that seemed as if he had already been smiling. I told him that his cart had caught my eye, that I was wondering about it. He splayed his arms out wide in the air, sighed, still smiling, and said, “This. This is my work of gratitude. I painted this with my gratitude. I needed to show it.” He showed me each side of his cart, each one painted like the cover of another book by Tolle. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Years ago, I was another man. I was a man who suffered.” He took his hand off my shoulder and put it on his heart. “I had lots, lots of pain,” he said. Just then, the noise of an incoming train disrupted our conversation. We stood there just looking at each other, and he kept his hand on his heart the entire time. When it became possible to talk again, he said, “But now, I’m free. I found “The Power of Now” in the library, I read it there and I was free.” He pointed at his cart and said, “My belongings are inside. This is my mobile home. I’m free. In every moment, I’m free.” 

"The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary: Vol. 1, Genesis," Edited by Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg

Borrow I Read

I went up to him after I took the picture, to find out what he was reading. He welcomed my interruption seamlessly; it was like he had been expecting me. He showed me that he was reading commentary on The Book of Genesis. Then he asked me, “Do you want to hear a great idea?” I said yes happily. He said he was concentrating on the very first sentence in Genesis, where it mentions what was created in the world first. He pointed at the sentence in his book and said, “If you read the full sentence, it says that the sky and the earth were created first. But, if you read just the first half of the sentence, the Hebrew word in the middle reveals that it was actually the alphabet that was created before anything else.” He took his finger off the page then, and he pointed at the subway doors. “You see these subway doors,” he told me, “they really are made of metal.” In a quieter tone, full of meditative curiosity, he continued. “At their foundation though, they’re really made of letters.” He lowered his hand then and looked around the subway car, in a way as if he was literally reading the atmosphere. 

"The Gift of Asher Lev," by Chaim Potok

Borrow I Read

I asked him for the shot and he said sure; he asked me to send him the picture. After he gave me his address, he went back to reading. Suddenly he looked up again and he said, “You know what I do with books on the subways? When I’m done reading them, I bring them here and I leave them all around for other people to find.” He stood up as his stop was approaching, and he continued, “It’s like my own kind of library. My own Underground Library.” I stared at him at that moment. I wanted to say hey! That I have my own kind of underground library too. I worried though, that I wouldn’t have enough time to fully explain, and that my quick words would just be absurd. So I let it go. I watched as he put out books before getting off the train, and I felt grateful, for the moment, for this man, and for the meeting. 

"Pinch Hit," by Tim Green

Borrow I Read

I asked him what he was reading and his eyes lit up. “Tim Green! He’s the best!” he exclaimed. Then in a less spontaneous tone he said, “It’s for children, of course.” The way he said it reminded me of that point in my life when I realized I wasn’t supposed to read children’s books anymore. I remember the sudden burden, the self-conscious feeling, that I was too old for what I was reading. I told him I think stories written for children can sometimes be even more magnificent for adults. He smiled and continued on to tell me about the plot, about how it was like The Parent Trap (by Hallie Marshall) but even better. Then he said, “and you know, it has beautiful illustrations. That’s the problem with books today. They don’t have illustrations anymore. It used to be they always did!”

For old book illustrations, here is the OBI Scrapbook Blog.

"Attila: The Judgment," by William Napier 

Borrow I Read

This man owns magic. I had to ask him to know what he was reading, so I told him a bit about this project. He looked at me with stern eyes. Then, he pumped his fist with zest, grinned, and said, “good luck!!”  I felt at that moment as if I was charmed. It turned out that, really, I was. Within the next ten minutes I came across five beautiful moments, all of which were possible to photograph. That’s not typical at all! :)

"By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept," by Elizabeth Smart 

Read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The train was waiting and she was sitting there reading. I saw her through the open doors. I walked in, took a seat infront of her, and I photographed her. She became aware of me after I took the shot. Instinctively, I knew that her awareness was informed. She looked up and asked, “Are you the underground?”. I hesitated for a moment, as I wondered myself if I was the underground. Then I quickly said yes. She took my hand and held it, so warmly, like we were already connected. I won’t forget it. That moment will be a part of me. It will enrich my work. Thank you. 

"Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany," by Chris Scarre

Read Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany

After I took the shot, I saw that I couldn’t tell what he was reading. I liked the scene and I wanted to save it, so I called out to him from across the tracks. “Hello! Hello there! Sir!” My voice echoed around and a few other people looked at me before he did. Finally he looked up and I asked him what he was reading. He didn’t hesitate, he began to answer immediately, as if it was perfectly natural that I should ask him this from across the platform. It happened that a train started to make its way in just then and I couldn’t hear him at all. The train came to a stop and we were fully divided. I stood there wondering if he’d be gone by the time it left. People got off and on the train and it seemed to me like it was the longest stop ever. Finally the train left and there he was still, reading. He looked up smiling and this time I heard him clearly when he told me what he was reading.

"New York," by Edward Rutherfurd

Read New York

I photographed him first in the middle of May. He was still in the beginning of the book then, as the picture shows. I was happy to see him again, to see that he was reaching the end of it. I photographed him again. Then I sat there realizing how I had a little collection of pictures of him now. I wanted to tell him but I worried about how to say it. He happened to look up with a smile, so I just told him. He said he was aware of me when I photographed him that other time, and he was delighted by the chance that I encountered him again. He was very interested in this project and he continued on to express how he felt about the subways in general. “I love it here,” he said. “Even when I’m not coming from or going to work, it’s great to be here.” “There’s a stillness here,” he said. “The atmosphere is just great.” I completely agree with him, and he’s a great part of what makes it so.  

"The Necromancer: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel," by Michael Scott 

Read The Necromancer

I expected him to look up after I took the shot, but he didn’t. He just kept reading. I needed to get his attention though because I couldn’t tell the title of his book. I said “excuse me, I just took your picture,” and I was about to continue explaining but he just cut into what I was saying. He started talking to me about the plot as if we had already been in conversation about it for an hour beforehand. He was spellbound, and I was spellbound in turn. 

on the left he’s reading "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw," by Jeff Kinney. on the right he’s reading "Warriors," by Erin Hunter.

Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid I Read Warriors

I was delighted by these two the moment I saw them. I wished very much to bring them to the library. Candidly photographing children is an even trickier area of street photography, so I was glad that their parents (pictured at left) were present. I approached them and asked if I could photograph their kids as they were reading. They were so enthusiastic about the underground library when I told them about it! They said “yes! sure!”, both of them in sync with their agreement. What was even more marvelous was the way these kids quietly observed our exchange, looking at their parents the entire time. When their parents expressed their agreement to me, they went back to reading and allowed me to photograph them, all without saying a word. 

"Shulchan Aruch: Code of Jewish Law", by Yosef Qaro on Flickr.

Read Shulchan Aruch

There was a man reading “Julius Caesar" on the platform. When I saw him, I saw no one else. I was very excited at the prospect of adding him to the library. I moved infront of him and was about to take a shot when he decided to stop reading. I continued to stand there ready to shoot but he just kept gazing at the train tracks. I tried sending him a few telepathic messages pleading with him to continue reading. Alas, to no success and I let out a sigh. Then I heard, " You can take his picture”. It was the man in the white beard, volunteering his younger friend as a subject. His friend shyly followed suit and pretended to read his book. I took the shot. 

"The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim", by Iceberg Slim and Robert Beck on Flickr.

Read The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim

I thought I went completely unnoticed when I took this shot. All of a sudden in a bellowing voice behind me he said “Let me see the shot!”. I almost jumped out of my skin. I showed him the picture on the LCD screen and he stared at it intently for a moment while I held my breath. Then he said, “Awwwwsome!”.

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