10 Books That Perfectly Channel The Spirit Of New York City
New York City. What can I say? My wardrobe is mostly black. Slow walkers make me furious. I grew up in Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood allegedly protected by both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I'm a die hard New Yorker. And nothing makes me happier than to sit on the subway, avoid eye contact with strangers, and read books that perfectly channel the spirit of NYC.
New York is so vast, so quasi-mythical that most New Yorkers just call it "The City." But if you're not from New York, books are probably the best way to understand the Big Apple. Don't visit. Read. The New York that most tourists see is almost entirely unrelated to the New York that people live in—very few New Yorkers spend their time at the Empire State Building, or taking carriage rides around Central Park, or staring blankly at the Metrocard machines while a whole line of people waits behind them impatiently. But certain books capture the real New York, from the Brooklyn hipsters to the starving artists to the Upper East Side snobs, and every other grimy, dreamy, hungry person in between.
After all, as John Updike once said, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Betty Smith's quintessential coming-of-age novel is set at the turn of the century in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Back then, Williamsburg was full of actual poor people, instead of rich people pretending to be poor for aesthetics. It's a detailed portrait of life in Old New York. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also captures the small victories that come with striving to survive in the city, even today.
2. Jazz by Toni Morrison
Harlem in the 1920s. Jazz music is at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, and so this novel is written much like a jazz composition—characters "improvise" their individual pieces, which all fit together to create a larger whole. One love triangle becomes much bigger than the three people involved. It's a dazzling, lyrical piece of writing, playing variations on themes of love, passion, and life in Harlem nearly a hundred years ago.
3. Social Disease by Paul Rudnick
Social Disease is a silly, silly novel. But then again, New York City is often a very silly place. It's not just the grand, untouchable city of old movies—it's also full of disco balls and goofy people with names like Guy and Venice. Social Disease is a satirical send-up of New York nightlife. According to the author, the book "is really about the three major issues of our time: sex, hair, and the telephone."
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man does not paint a pretty picture of New York. But life in New York isn't always so very pretty. Invisible Man is one nameless man's journey from the Deep South to Harlem, fraught with violence and bigotry at every turn. But it's also a necessary tale of coming to New York, as so many people do, to find a new life and a whole new set of ugly challenges.
5. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Yeah, yeah, the film is a classic (except for the stuff with Micky Rooney). But the book gives us a far more nuanced, flawed Holly Golightly. She's not a darling dream girl. Unlike the Audrey Hepburn version, you wouldn't want a poster of her in your dorm room. But Breakfast at Tiffany's also gives us a city just as wild, glamorous, nuanced, and flawed as its main character.
6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about two young Jewish men who write and illustrate comic books. But it's about so much more than that: it captures the feeling of overwhelming hope and possibility that New York City inspires in so many young artists. And it captures that larger-than-life sense of living in a city of modern-day mythology and imaginary superheroes.
7. Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
Yup, those photos from your Facebook feed have their own book. But it's impossible to roll your eyes at the HONY book, because the portraits are beautiful and the stories are endlessly engrossing. Real New Yorkers talking about their real lives in hilarious, gut-wrenching detail. You can't do much better when it comes to channeling the spirit of New York.
8. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith's first memoir delves into her days in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, piecing together the city of the 60's and 70's. It's an honest story of friendship and youth, art and grit, and (as the title suggests) growing up. Even if you're not totally familiar with Patti Smith's music, she perfectly channels her corner of the New York art scene.
9. Never Can Say Goodbye edited by Sari Botton
Who better to channel the spirit of New York than a bunch of writers writing about their love for New York? Sure, not every essay is a revelation, and some of these writers live in a very different New York than the rest of us do. But there's no question that this book captures New Yorkers' undying love for their city. After all those essays about leaving the city, it's nice to remember why so many of us stay.
10. Here is New York by E.B. White
E.B. White's Here is New York is a love letter to the city. It's funny and insightful, sure, but really it's a prose piece made of concentrated love for the city. Here is New York chronicles White as he strolls around Manhattan. There's no particular plot or complications. And yet, it's still one of the most perfect essays ever written about the city, and it captures New York's essence in just a few pages.
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