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Tweeting a book by its cover

An indie magazine in Brooklyn has launched a Twitter account that broadcasts what books people are reading on the New York subway--an attempt to show that e-readers have their voyeuristic disadvantages.

Thanks to the success of Amazon's Kindle and the frenetic anticipation surrounding Apple's forthcoming iPad tablet, electronic book readers are front and center in the gadget world. Fans laud the convenience and portability factors--and as a result, one of the demographics that they say has benefited the most from devices like the Kindle is the urban commuter.

But a new project from non-profit biannual magazine Slice, based in Brooklyn, tries to show us that something is lost on a Kindle commute. Meet CoverSpy, a Twitter feed run by Slice, which peeks at the books that people are reading on the New York City subway (as well as on park benches and some other gathering places) and tweets them along with some basic, anonymous detail about the reader and a link to the cover.

"We decided to keep that spirit of voyeurism and book appreciation alive by creating this side project to our magazine," Slice art director Amy Sly told CNET, "and we post each instance of someone spied reading in public to hopefully keep the conversation about reading and about the value of print going."

Ironically, it's the new-media innovations brought by Twitter--plus a visual version on blog platform Tumblr--that facilitate this celebration of print media.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, (M, 30s, plaid jacket, plaid scarf, furrowed brow, 3 train), a tweet posted overnight on Monday read. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (F, 20s, bright red coat w hood & glasses, tote bag, B train), an earlier post on Monday. It's unlikely that they're in real-time, considering there's no cell phone or data reception on most of New York's underground train lines and stations.

"We were lamenting the prevalence of e-readers spotted on our train rides and what a bleak commute it would be if all of the book covers were replaced with blank e-reader covers," Sly said of the project's beginnings last October. "For one thing, it's always been fun to see what everyone's reading around you--and it's especially interesting how they're not always the books that are making headlines at the moment. And also because we each had a story about a time a conversation started with someone we didn't know because of the books we were holding in our hands."

Right now about a dozen people are contributing anonymously to the CoverSpy project, and Sly says there are plans to expand to other cities. "Since the mission of Slice is to help foster literary communities, it makes the prospect of a global team of CoverSpies very exciting," she said. "We are currently planning ways to orchestrate just such an endeavor and hope to launch new CoverSpy projects soon." For now, they encourage readers to submit their own with the hashtag #coverspy.

Unfortunately for CoverSpy's print advocates, e-readers aren't going away: Most owners of the devices, an NPD Group survey found recently, absolutely love them. Spotting books on the New York subway may indeed become a novelty worth tweeting about.