Culture Trips

Top 10 books about New York | Books

New York City got into my blood. It’s a side effect when you spend years walking its streets, talking to hundreds of residents. It invaded my thoughts, colonised my reading list and still shows up, vividly, in my dreams.

My favourite New York books are about people. My latest, New Yorkers, contains interviews with nearly 80 residents, including Black Lives Matter protesters and an Occupy Wall Street veteran, as well as 9/11 first responders. When Covid-19 erupted I spent months speaking to nurses and survivors. I’m still in conversation with them; you never leave a New York project behind.

Plenty of books have been written about New York’s systems. (If you’re into sewers, lose yourself in Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City.) They’re interesting but don’t convey the New York I love – a city of voice and interruption, full of those ready to chachareando the days away. Is a sewer line going to speak up about the immigrant experience? Probably not.

Building a book with the words of New Yorkers is painstaking work. Some turn to search engines to learn about the city, but the best New York books are by those who enter New York with awe and humility. A seeker is always more compelling than a know-it-all. If you commit to its streets, this place will surprise and shock, but always provide.

1. The Long-winded Lady by Maeve Brennan
No one captures the small moments of New York like Maeve Brennan. I remember a woman at City Diner, 90th and Broadway, who’d appear most evenings with a fat Russian novel and a glass of diner white wine. Maeve Brennan would have written up her story in prose that would at first appear wispy before revealing its weight. Brennan performs exactly this feat in the 47 short pieces here, all of which appeared in the New Yorker between 1954 and 1981. They are slight only on first read.

2. The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick
In her memoir, Gornick describes New York as a “fabled context for the creation myth of the young man of genius arriving in the world capital … where he will at last be recognised for the heroic figure he knows himself to be”. Unsurprisingly, these men are still here, often transplants, braying about their authentic New York experience. Gornick wants none of it: “Not my city at all.” Her New York is populated by “the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvellous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of a stranger.” Although Gornick grew up in the Bronx, she considers herself a pilgrim to the city. When she finally moved to Manhattan she experienced what most of us yearn for on arrival. “I could taste in my mouth world, sheer world.”

3. Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss
Moss looks around today’s New York with anger. Money dictates. Speculation destroys. Pedestrians experience repetition. Haven’t I already passed this Bank of America? A nowhere New York flourishes, block by block. I often feel frustrated, but it’s Moss who wrote the cri de coeur. As the city changes, Moss warns, the people and their opportunities will change. Angry city books are necessary and, like most New York projects, this one never ends. On 13 March this year Moss wrote a blogpost about the closing of Eisenberg’s, a great sandwich shop, another pandemic victim. The accompanying photo shows Moss’s final tuna sandwich flanked by a bottle of hand sanitiser.

Aston Robinson – Waiter, Gage & Tollner, photographed in Harvey Wang’s New York
Aston Robinson – Waiter, Gage & Tollner, photographed in Harvey Wang’s New York. ‘Gage & Tollner had closed in 2004, but last year was planning to reopen under new management, just as the pandemic closed all businesses. It has survived, and is going to have another reopening in April.’ Photograph: Harvey Wang

4. Harvey Wang’s New York
In his foreword to this 1990 collection of portraits, city chronicler Pete Hamill describes three New Yorks: the romantic fantasyland, the grim cityscape, and a New York of “work and endurance”. In this book of black and white photographs, Wang concentrates on the last, what he calls “holdout New York”. If they were holding out in 1990, they’re mostly extinct today: typesetters, photo-engravers, knife grinders. A blacksmith peers at the camera from his workshop in Astoria. “Just look at the eyes,” writes Hamill, “the eyes and the hands … They don’t perform their lives; they live them.” Wang’s slim collection reminds us we’re all, in a way, holdouts in an ever-changing town.

5. Ice Cream for Freaks by Dejon
Dejon made my list because of the way he sells his own books. I met him outside a subway entrance in the South Bronx, where he’d set up a trestle table and was cajoling passersby to purchase his latest crime novel. “Just take a look, just check out the cover, just buy a book, how you doing, I like those shoes.” In New York, you’re always on the outside of someone’s establishment. Dejon wasn’t exactly waiting for the book industry to offer him an advance. His advice: find an empty stretch of pavement, convince the people, use your voice, sell it.

6. No Matter by Jana Prikryl
Prikryl is a very different kind of metro writer, a wildly talented poet whose work makes strange the familiar contours of the city. When I interview New Yorkers I often encounter a tendency towards the illusory. Someone will talk about a street but then admit it’s a dream. Prikryl welcomes these transformations – “like the East River pretending / to be a river when it’s merely an appetite”. Her poems also catalogue the many points of warmth that flash between New Yorkers. “In this city friendship’s / the main mode of disaster prep.”

Taxi cabs in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan.
Taxi cabs in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan. Photograph: Robert Harding World Imagery/Alamy

7. The Company of Strangers by Gus Powell
While working in midtown, photographer Gus Powell followed the lead of poet Frank O’Hara and spent his lunch hours making art. For Powell, the camera frame is where New Yorkers meet, just for a second, to create complex friezes of urban life. Look long enough and you’ll notice the connective substance between his figures – what Powell calls the plasma of New York. For me, there is no better representation of the complex pedestrian choreography of its sidewalks.

8. Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz
Cruising, sex work, homelessness, drug abuse, the Aids epidemic – all are subjects delivered up by an artist writing at velocity, grabbing at memories of New York while his community disappears – “piece by piece the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder”. In this 1991 “memoir of disintegration”, Wojnarowicz’s prose screams for attention. See these New Yorkers, his lovers and friends, and witness him engrave their presence into the social history of the city.

The Harlem Apollo pays tribute to Cicely Tyson, who died in January.
The Harlem Apollo pays tribute to Cicely Tyson, who died in January. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

9. Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Rhodes-Pitts describes how the history she learned of Harlem was “a flattened version of events where a place is allowed to be one thing or another”. But Harlem is not so binary. Rhodes-Pitts’s project captures many of its angles. She struggles with the weight of history, as well as how to address gentrification. She acknowledges the heavyweight names attached to the streets – Baldwin, Garvey, WEB Du Bois – and then veers towards the unsung characters discovered in local archives. It is most definitely not a comprehensive history. Harlem defies the comprehensive.

10. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
The cast list in Mitchell’s writing is impressive: exterminators, preachers, seafoodenarians. But what’s most important in this collection of reportage is Mitchell’s belief in the power of aimless walking and the unceasing generosity of the streets. I heard it repeated again and again. No matter what you’re into, New York will provide. If, like Mitchell, you’re interested in people, there is still a vernacular, there are still eloquent self-mythologisers. There is still a New York voice. It will still bend your ears.

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