Train of Thought: The Underground New York Public Library

I’ve lived in New York for a long, long time, and while there are obvious things to hate about it—the dirt, the inequity, the weather, the armies of the oblivious, both native and tourist varieties—I have never not loved it here. Part of that is about the resources, the ready culture, but a lot of my affection for this city involves the people. Not just my friends and acquaintances, although they’re certainly the glue that holds everything together, but the energy that comes with all that humanity, the big mix, the general beauty of the species (or, if I’m in a foul temper, the general grotesquerie of it—but this is not that tirade).

So photographer Ourit Ben-Haim’s blog of New York City subway readers, The Underground New York Public Library, is a straight up slam dunk for me. She has a knack for capturing that beauty: people just living their lives, on their way to one place or another, doing something they’ve probably done a hundred times before—and yet the moments she chooses are transcendent in a wholly mundane way. Her subjects are present and yet removed; they’re there, and they’re also elsewhere, in a book, and Ben-Haim does a lovely job of capturing their slipstream travel. That, and the reactions and interactions of onlookers, either reading themselves or more firmly rooted in the here and now. These are not hipsters, these are not book-bearing oddities in the 21st century. They’re just people reading on the train. Ben-Haim explains,

Reading isn’t an anomaly and it probably never will be. This project isn’t trying to document something rare. It’s an attempt to reveal us as we are.

I love these portraits, and I hope that non-New Yorkers (or my more cranky fellow city dwellers) find something to love in them too.

Because 30 years in a 20-mile radius will turn a big city into something of a small town, I scrolled all the way through to the beginning to see if I knew anyone, and was a bit surprised that I didn’t. I was half expecting to find myself in there—she seems to frequent my subway line, and I’m never on the train and not reading. But I’m comforted to think that I’m quite possibly a future subject.

The Underground New York Public Library is not all codex-centric, featuring someone with an e-reader every Friday—although without the book title the portrait doesn’t quite feel complete. And it’s not all secular, giving us a Bible/Torah/Koran reader every Sunday. Unreadable titles are crowdsourced among the blog’s followers, and so far there’s only one remaining unidentified. Beyond those few conventions, Ben-Haim doesn’t editorialize other than an occasional description of what went on behind the scenes. She doesn’t need to. Her readers—ahem—speak volumes.

(“‘Catch-22,’ by Joseph Heller” ©2012 by Ourit Ben-Haim.)


1 Comment to Train of Thought: The Underground New York Public Library

  1. July 16, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    No worries, Lisa. UNYPL resonates well outside NYC, even to the ends of the earth (San Diego). It has a democratic appeal that captures something beautiful, commonplace, and vital to our national welfare and identity–the simple act of tuning into other people’s thoughts for a while, and out of our own. Thanks for sharing the blog.

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