I love to read about places I’ve traveled to, both to reminisce about their wonders and to whet my appetite for returning. New York City is a special case in point. I lived there for 14 years and during that time reveled in reading the many books about it; now that I travel to NYC several times a year to visit friends, I rely on books to remind me of—and prepare me for—the special energy and astounding history of the city. Here are a few of the books about the Big Apple that have stayed with me the most: three to read before you go, and four to read once you’re there.
Before You Go:
Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2014 novel is over 770 pages long, but it flies by as a glorious introduction to Manhattan life. The book begins with a terrorist bombing that forever changes the life of Theo Decker, a 13-year-old Manhattanite, and follows his life from that point on. The plot takes you from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Greenwich Village to Queens. The story is absolutely page turning, and the book’s setting is so finely wrought as to feel like an atmosphere that can support life. It’ll get you into the New York state of mind.
Poems of New York
Part of the Everyman’s Library series of pocket-sized books of poetry, this collection was published shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. It spans New York’s history and includes poems about the city from such luminaries as Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and Dorothy Parker. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll be surprised at how reading a poem a day can teach you about New York’s centuries of history and give you a feel for the scope and vastness of the city.
The Colossus of New York
Author Colson Whitehead recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Underground Railroad, but before he wrote that, he crafted the beautiful essays about New York that make up this volume. Whitehead is a native of the city, and his affection for and frustration with his hometown show up in every essay. The relative brevity of each one also makes the book great to revisit on a subway ride.
While You’re There:
The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York
Authors Greg Young and Tom Meyers host their monthly podcast as The Bowery Boys, telling tales of vanished New York. In their first book, they’ve honed their chatty, erudite style into a streamlined written series of short walking tours around Manhattan, astonishingly covering every neighborhood on the island from Wall Street to Washington Heights. The passages about the city’s history are educational and delightfully bite-sized: You’ll learn a lot without spending ages huddled over a book on a street corner.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
To walk around Manhattan is to realize how much more there is to see than what any traveler can experience on a short trip. The author of this book, William B. Helmreich, is a lifelong New Yorker, but he understands that dilemma. His 2015 book, a memoir about walking virtually every block in the city (that’s Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens as well as Manhattan!), will make you feel as if you saw much more of it than you could on your own.
Keats’s Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury
You’ve probably interacted with Keats’s work before—his classic book for children, The Snowy Day, remains a favorite since it was published in 1962—but you might not think of him as a New York writer. A soothing read through this treasury (perfect eye candy as you soak your tired feet back at the hotel) will prove to you that he was. In page after page of his colorful, multicultural collage illustrations, children run down city streets, buy sodas at corner bodegas, and go to sleep in Brooklyn brownstones. You’ll be amazed at how much New York still resembles his pictures.
Joe Gould’s Teeth
For many travelers, The New Yorker is synonymous with the city that gave the magazine its name. Reading this book gives you a deep dive into that world: Current New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore digs into the real story of Joe Gould, an eccentric denizen of the city who was the subject of “Professor Sea Gull,” a 1942 profile, as well as “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a 1964 follow-up, both by noted New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Gould claimed to be writing the longest book ever written; Mitchell avowed that his manuscript didn’t exist. What Lepore uncovers about Gould’s work—and the ways he was helped and hindered by some of the greatest writers of his era—is as disturbing as it is eerie and reads like fiction.