WSIRN Ep 73: Don’t judge a person by their (book) cover

Have you ever been at a bus stop, on a train, or in a waiting room, and casually craned your neck trying to peek the title of a stranger’s book? Going a step further – have you ever straight-up ASKED a stranger about the book they’re reading? For most of us, that sounds intimidating. For today’s guest, Uli Beutter Cohen, it sounded like a fascinating years-long project. Uli is the creator behind Subway Book Review on Instagram, a project dedicated to sharing book reviews from strangers on the train, accompanied by gorgeous black and white photos.

In today’s episode, we get to learn more about who Uli is as a reader and creator. I think you’ll find her as fascinating as I did!

What Should I Read Next #73: Don't judge a person by their (book) cover with Uli Beutter Cohen

Connect with Uli Beutter Cohen:
Website | Subway Book Review | Eye Level Magazine

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here.

• Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
• Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
• author Ariel Levy
• author David Sedaris
• The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
• Upstairs at the Strand, by Jessica Strand and Andrea Aguilar
• There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, by
• Men Without Women, by Haruki Marukami
• The Art of Communicating, by Thich Nhat Hanh
• How To Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh
• Subway, by Bruce Davidson
• Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
• The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Lang
• Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
 Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
• Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins
• In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice From Over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs, by Grace Bonney
• author Anthony Marra
• author Isabel Allende
• You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon
• The Confusion of Languages, by Siobhan Fallon
• A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggars
• High Dive, by Jonathan Lee
• Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
• Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
• We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Also mentioned:
• Eye Level Magazine
• The Moth podcast
• Well-Read Black Girl on Instagram
• Brokedown Palace movie
• Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk: “The Danger of a Single Story” 
• “Talking About Books I Don’t Like” on Modern Mrs. Darcy

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Leave A Comment
  1. This is wonderful!
    Yes, I absolutely am nosy about what people read and will not hesitate to ask questions. I’m pretty indiscriminate, too. I’ll engage almost anybody reading almost anything. It often leads to interesting conversations. And if not, it’s easy enough to tell the person thanks and leave it at that.

  2. Regina K. says:

    Hi Uli, I probably don’t count, but I actually know your hometown Reutlingen – because I happen to live in another small town in Southern Germany: Rottweil (home of the doggies). I think it’s about an hour’s drive from Reutlingen :).
    Your instagram portraits are great, I will definitely dive deeper into that account. The project reminds me of the “Humans of New York” stories which I also like very much.
    In early June I will be in New York for the first time in my life (and so excited about that). I think I might have to carry a book with me whenever I plan on taking the subway, in case you’re on the same train ;).
    And to answer a question Anne asked during the show (when and where do people listen to the podcast): I listen to WSIRN almost exclusively while walking my dog!

  3. Melissa says:

    I think the book list in the show notes isn’t supposed to be with this podcast… The Louise Penny series and Anne of Green Gables aren’t mentioned.

    • Anne says:

      Oh shoot, that’s my mistake! The book list is right for Episode 73; it’s the wrong episode in the player. Thanks for the catch. (To see the book list you’re looking for head here.)

  4. Lauren says:

    Loved this episode! ‘The Danger of the Single Story’ is my favorite TED talk of all time! You might think about reading “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi. Don’t let the mixed reviews scare you away because it is truly an amazing book. Based off of this conversation it sounds like a book you would enjoy.

  5. Aisling Watters says:

    Love this podcast, get so many great ideas. But I spent a year in university in Tubingen and know Reutlingen quite well. Will look out for you when I visit NYC in November.

    • Uli says:

      Hi Aisling, bring some good books with you when you come to visit! Or stop by one of the many amazing bookstores in NYC 🙂 Uli

  6. Jill K. says:

    I love your instagram feed!
    I’ve been riding the DC metro for year, but have only had two book interactions. The first one was right after Hunger Games came out. A guy barged into me while walking through a station. I was really mad, until I saw what he was reading. I had just finished the Hunger Games too, so I had a good laugh with him about it.
    Then just a few months ago someone from Hampton, VA came up to me while I was reading Hidden Figures. She asked me about the book, and told me how much she had loved the movie.

  7. Cathy Heine says:

    Folding laundry goes by quickly when I’m listening to your Podcast! And of course, my TBR list is close by so that I can add to it!
    Thank you!

  8. Mary says:

    Has Uli read “Rules of Civility?” Thinking of the subway photos.
    Also, do most readers on the subway read hardbacks? Does she see many e-readers?

  9. Stacy M says:

    Uli – have you read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen? Since you enjoy short stories so much, this seemed like a book that you might like.

    In regards to where I listen to the podcast, it is usually on my Tuesday morning walk, unless it’s raining of course, then I just listen while getting ready for work.

  10. Holli Petersen says:

    I’m starting to worry about my taste level since everyone seems to hates Girl on the Train and I really enjoyed it! I didn’t think it was the *greatest* thing I’ve ever read but I love an unreliable narrator. And it for sure kept the pages turning, which is all I really expect from a “psychological thriller.”

    • Britany Arnold says:

      You’re not alone Holli- I also really enjoyed it. That’s one of the things I love about readers- everyone loves different things. How boring would it be if we all shared the same opinion? 🙂

  11. Kyla says:

    Isabel Allende is one of my all-time favorites! I’ve actually been surprised that no one on the podcast has listed Allende as a favorite so far (that I recall). House of the Spirits is obviously a great place to start. I really enjoyed her more recent The Island Beneath the Sea immensely.

    • Kyla says:

      I usually listen to the podcast while pushing the double stroller to the library 🙂 I also just started following Uli’s instagram after listening to this episode. I get some of the best ideas and conniptions from you, Anne!

  12. Anne says:

    Hi Anne – Just wanted to say that I typically do enjoy the podcast but I would really like a return (at least at times) to “regular readers.” I thought long and hard about this and tried to determine if I am speaking out of envy because I signed up for the podcast long, long ago, but I think I feel this way independent of my hope to be a guest. Thanks for all of the great book recommendations and for the insights into personality. I don’t know my type yet, but I did search long and hard on your site for an email address because I didn’t really want to air my grievance publicly.

    • Anne says:

      Anne, I’m scrolling through the past few months and the overwhelming majority of guests look like “regular readers” to me! My theory is that every “regular reader” sounds pretty darn amazing and articulate on the podcast, so they’re not necessarily easy to spot. Thoughts?

      • Anne says:

        That could be it. It has felt to me that the majority are people who have podcasts or popular instagram accounts or are somehow involved in media/publishing. Maybe it’s just a function of how many podcasts I listen to (lots) or how we define regular readers, but it feels like a long time since I heard a person (aside from the reading tracking episode) who isn’t somehow involved in media.

        Thanks for taking the time to respond.

        • Anne says:

          We’ve talked to a lot of “regular readers” who maintain personal instagram accounts or hobby blogs. If they do, we make it a point to shout it from the rooftops. 🙂

  13. Shar says:

    Anne, please tell Uli that I have been to Reutlingen (and Tubingen!) many, many times. We were stationed at USAG Stuttgart (we lived on Patch Barracks near Vaihingen) for 5 years, from 2009 to 2014. We have 2 kids and used to shop at the Toy “R” Us in Reutlingen every Christmas. We also used to stop in Reutlingen every time we would go to the Chocolate festival in Tubingen. Such a lovely area. And such a small world. Tschuss Uli!!!

      • Shar says:

        Oh Uli, you must go to the Chocolate Festival. It can be pretty pricey, but it is fantastic. They usually hold it at the first part of December. Chocolate everything, what could be better? Even chocolate wine. It is so fun. The only other fest I liked more was the pumpkin festival in Ludwigsburg every fall.

  14. Sarah R. says:

    I loved this episode. (I mean, I love them all, of course!) Uli was a delight to listen to and she made some really fantastic points about reading in general that I would love to have printed so I can add to my journal. This made me wonder if the episodes are transcribed in case someone wanted to reference something without re-listening? Thanks for a wonderful podcast, Anne & guests!!

  15. Sarah says:

    Hello Uli,
    I vacationed in your home town about ten years ago, because we had family who lived in Eningen. I loved Reutlingen – it was my first visit to Germany and was a great introduction.

  16. Esther says:

    Hey Uli! All I was thinking while listening to you talk about your love for short story and memoir and poetry is that I really hope you have read Annie Dillard! An American Childhood is such a beautiful book and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is too. Another great book that is poetic and memoir you might like is Ru by Kim Thuy.
    Thanks for a lovely episode Anne! I had to chuckle when you read the note at the beginning, I binged many old episodes while I was getting the hang of breastfeeding my (then) newborn last summer! I’ve been hooked since. This is one of my favourite podcasts and I recommend it constantly.

  17. Ellen Kennard says:

    I really look forward to this weekly podcast and get so much out of it, from book recs to connections with other media sites. I will admit that I was a bit taken aback by the dismissive ‘old lady books’ genre comment by your guest. I had never heard that phrase and I guess it just hit home a little hard! I had assumed books was one area that was ageless, where we are all one in our love of good literature, but maybe not. She was an interesting guest who thought of something unique to do with books so I did enjoy listening this week.

  18. Naomi says:

    I thought it would be appropriate to chime in this week and say thank you for the podcast since I always listen to it on the S-bahn on my way into work. I also wanted to let you know that I think according to the terms outlined in the Podcast I think your friend Uli owes you $100. I live in Esslingen, Germany and have passed through Reutlingen several times… (wait for it) on the train while traveling to Tubingen (they have a fantastic chocolate festival every Christmas). Anyway, thanks for the podcast and all the wonderful book recommendations.

  19. Rachelle Waldon says:

    My husband grew up just a few minutes away from Reutlingen in Bempflingen! We were there for a month last year for the holidays, and I completely fell in love with the area.

  20. Sonja says:


    I think you underestimate the number of people who know Reutlingen! I am from Darmstadt, and a big fan of fellow physicist Ernst Messerschmid.

  21. Christie says:

    This was a great episode. I’ve requested three of the books from my library and I’m so excited. Ulli was such a fun guest and I’m loving her Instagram account.

    Ann, I have a question. Sometime last fall, I listened to an episode of your podcast. The woman you interviewed mentioned a book she loved that was about (forgive me here, the details are so vague) walking through your neighborhood, being part of your community. I’ve searched the show notes for every episode and I can’t find mention of this book. I’m starting to think I’ve imagined it. Would you by chance know what book I’m talking about?

    I LOVE your show. You keep me company on hours and hours of walks with my dog. 🙂


    • Nicole says:

      I’m not positive but are you thinking of “This is Where You Belong?” Perhaps from episode 39 with the author Melody Warnick?

      • Christie says:

        NICOLE, I think that was it! Thank you so much! It’s been driving me a little crazy. Yay, now I can go request it. 🙂


    • Shar says:

      It is This is Where You Belong. I have read it and really enjoyed it. We have lived in our current city for 3 years and I have hated it, so I picked up this book in hopes of changing that. It has been really helpful. But I also think it would be great just for information on how to get more from your city and how to give more to it.

  22. Lucille says:

    Uli, I think you would love is A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.

    A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.

    Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.

  23. Corrie Ayers says:

    I loved this episode – and you can tell Uli that I have heard of her city in Germany! I travel there frequently for work and travel with a German native – so I have a slight advantage! Since I only listen to your podcast when I am at the gym – makes running on the treadmill so much more enjoyable – I am a bit behind and wish I had hear this one earlier – would have signed up for the monthly tea!

  24. Rebekah in Redlands says:

    I finally received “The Confusion of Languages” from the library (not bad for being 9th place in line when it released). Wow. I think I’ll have to check out some of the other recommendations.

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