It’s hard to believe, but it’s been three years since I left New York and set off on my European adventures.
I’ve found that when I try to remember what New York is like, I think of how it was to attend college there, to down coffee and bagels every morning before work, and to walk around Bryant Park during my lunch hour. Just when I think I can pin down what life in New York was really like, some little detail upsets my easy explanations.
The following writers have managed to record with beautiful accuracy life in this wild city. Each book is set in a different time period, and some are total fiction while others are more factual, based on real experiences and historical events. But somehow, they all manage to catch a glimpse of the elusive, living New York, and so if you’ve got one more vacation before the end of the summer, make your reading material one of these books. So here you have them, my favorite New York sagas:
1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Mariner Books. Paperback 368 pages.
Safran Foer paints a child’s vision of New York, and a shocked, smoky, post 9/11 city becomes a city of magic and secrets, deep family love and impossible hopes. Some of the scenes in this book contain simply exquisite writing, to the point that you’ll remember it years after putting it down. It’s inspired me personally to hold my loved ones a little more tightly.
2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Back Bay Books, paperback 771 pages.
Through the eyes of Theo Decker, New York is a spinning city that only grows more wild the more time passes after a tragic accident. The book has a definite Dickensian feel. It’s a sprawling 700+ pages, and the characters in it are memorable in a way that many other characters in contemporary fiction are not. The book is quite stressful at moments, which keeps the story moving along at a quick pace despite its length. It’s ideal reading for long plane rides and sleepless nights.
3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Random House. paperback 704 pages.
This book both charmed me and made my heart ache. Chabon takes readers through pre-World War II New York, intertwining super heroes, Jewishness, creativity, romantic love of all kinds, and war in his story. For anyone who enjoys a good, thrilling piece of creative historical fiction, this is a fantastic book to pick up.
4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Anchor Books. Paperback 352 pages.
If you would ever like to write a novel, you should read this book. Its unconventional style of storytelling is jarring at first, but even though you eventually get used to being tossed around, the writing continues to surprise you. Much of the story takes place in New York, and it captures the glory and brutality of the city’s music scene in a simultaneously light-hearted and sobering way.
5. Here is New York by E. B. White. The Little Bookroom, hardback 56 pages.
It’s been several years since I’ve read this little volume, which probably means it’s time for a re-read. In the months leading up to my first year at Barnard College, I cherished E. B. White’s words and realized how lucky I was to be heading to this incredible city for my education. The most memorable thing for me was White’s description of the self-sufficiency of each neighborhood. What a thought, having only to walk down the street to buy a bottle of milk! It’s a refreshing vision of mixed-used living for those residing in much less cozy American cities.
Of course, while I think these books are excellent, there are way more great books about New York City than I was able to profile here. What are your favorite books about the Big Apple? Leave your recommendations in the comments section below!
About the author
Rebekah Lee Mays is an American freelance travel writer who’s lived and worked in Europe for the past three years. Her fiction has been published in Hobart and the Forge Literary Magazine, and she currently studies literature and creative writing a few blocks from the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.