Six Great Books About New York City to read while in New York City
Jun 22, 2011
There’s that backpacker thing where certain novels topical to the country get passed around. Everyone in Myanmar is reading The Glass Palace, or everyone in India has an enormous, soft, tattered copy of Shantaram. These are the kind of books that you’ll find left behind in your hostel or will discover multiple copies of in the foreign-language used bookstores in places like Khao San Road. It’s more of a challenge to choose a book about New York City to read in New York City, mainly because there are so many of them, and because though independent bookstores like Freebird in Red Hook, Brooklyn and BookCourt on Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and The Strand on Union Square, have special New York sections, they don’t have that dirty hand-to-hand authenticity of backpacker’s choice. Here are the books we’d suggest reading and abandoning in NYC. Other ideas? Please comment.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
An aimless cricket-playing business guy from the Netherlands, abandoned by his wife, drifts gorgeously on the tides of post-9/11 New York. O’Neill brilliantly captures the city’s shifting, immersive, utterly specific street-level and the vastness of the far-flung boroughs.
Money by Martin Amis
The category of nihilistic, substance-fueled NYC bender novel probably deserves its own table at McNally Jackson. Our favorite book of this type is Martin Amis’s alcoholic ego-fest about a British director of commercials come to New York to shoot his first film. New York is above all a drinking town and Amis’s raging prose captures the spirit.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
This gruesomely violent and plotless meditation on the money, vanity and status obsession that fuels the city’s upper classes is not exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s like Ellis has boiled down every other sex-and-stilettos novel to its essential truth. It becomes tolerable—fun even—if you mentally cast the Sex and the City gals as serial-killing stockbroker protagonist Patrick Bateman’s ill-fated girlfriends.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
It’s not a novel, but the struggling characters in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s masterpiece of reporting have dramatic enough lives that their story reads like one. Like The Wire for NYC in book form.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
The more we thought about New York City novels as a group, the more they became too similar, too bourgeoisie and not hard-nosed enough for this realist town. Memoir captures the tone better, focusing on the unhomogenized individual within the mixing-pot multitude. And who better to read than Tony Bourdain, who birthed the rock-star restaurateur phenomenon directly from his forehead, like Zeus hatching Athena, with his ass-kicking year-2000 memoir of coming up in the restaurant industry. Bourdain has become a television personality, Top Chef judge, etc., which tends to obscure the fact that he’s a very good writer.