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Even if New York isn’t the greatest city in the world, it’s unlikely to drop this self-appointed nickname any time soon. Like its oldest and toughest inhabitants, it’s simply too stubborn, too proud, and too contentious to admit it might be wrong.
But when it comes to literary New York, we can make room for superlatives. The city’s nearly 400-year history lays claim to Washington Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Betty Smith, and Jack Kerouac—and that’s just the starting lineup on New York’s roster of all-star authors. Together, they capture the spirit and substance of this cultural capital as only writers can: fearlessly, sensitively, and tirelessly. Here’s a list of New York reads, old and new, to help you get ready to tackle our mega-metropolis—if there is such a thing as “ready.”
The Age of Innocence
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning “novel of manners,” Edith Wharton carefully dissects aristocratic New York society, intent on digging past its polished surface to the rotten skeleton within. In the late 19th century, the elite rule the city, and Newland Archer is about to discover that “good” families and “bad” behavior are a blueprint for disaster. Tempted by the open-minded Countess Ellen Olenska, as well as the independence she determinedly embodies, Newland must choose between a respectable but loveless marriage, and passion with a side of scandal. New York was never more polite, or more rigid, than in this gilded and stifling tale of fractured innocence.
The Great Gatsby
New York bursts at the seams in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece. Our reflective narrator, Nick Carraway, introduces us to a setting, a lifestyle, and a love affair of reckless decadence—the kind that characterized the Jazz Age and, more broadly, the Roaring Twenties. As the nation awakens from the American Dream, an invisible but unmistakable divide between old and new money will be, for many, the arbiter of fate. While The Great Gatsby’s New York City serves as a symbol for hedonism and moral decay, Nick manages to escape without surrendering to cynicism. We should all be so lucky.
Ralph Ellison provided the voice and jazz music provided the form for this 1952 experiment in literature. In Invisible Man, Harlem serves as the lively setting of an at-once realist, surrealist, satirical, and existentialist tragi-comedy examining the oppression and prejudice faced by African-Americans across the nation. Just like New York City, the unnamed and “invisible” narrator undergoes countless transformations in an attempt to find his true identity before finally accepting individuality and self-expression for what they are: relentlessly complex.
The Catcher in the Rye
Inward and outward turbulence dominate J. D. Salinger’s best-known novel—which comes as no surprise on a tour of New York City led by literature’s angstiest teenager. What do we learn from the unforgettable Holden Caulfield? That it’s easy to feel lonely in a city of eight million people. That growing up is a kind of mental affliction. That the worst thing a person can be is phony—yet all of us are. And, of course, that trying to make sense of the world always ends in sound defeat.
It’s hard to say exactly how many Manhattan businessmen are also serial killers; few of them offer such detailed confessions as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. A superficial maniac who objectifies everything he sees (including—and especially—people), Patrick serves as a symbol for the bleaker aspects of capitalism. During the Wall Street boom of the 1980s, New Yorkers routinely sacrificed their sanity to keep up with the rat race—and Bret Easton Ellis painted this disturbing postmodern portrait.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In a city as diverse as New York, there aren’t many things we all have in common. One of them is a weird neighbor. Truman Capote’s immortal creation Holly Golightly is the rare neighbor who’s weird in a good way—sort of. A shallow and self-absorbed yet hopeful and affectionate woman, Holly befriends the Upper-East-Side-dwelling narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and shakes up his world like a colorful cocktail. Like the city itself, she is destined to make a lasting impression on everyone she meets.
Already finished and looking for more? Excellent. New York will be thrilled to welcome you into its beautiful bookstores. The Strand, located at 828 Broadway, is famous for its 18 miles of books (new, used, and rare), while smaller bookstores such as The Mysterious Bookshop (58 Warren Street) and Idlewild Books (12 West 19th Street) specialize in subjects like mystery and travel. Community Bookstore is a beloved independent bookshop in Park Slope (143 7th Avenue) with an outdoor reading space, and Housing Works Bookstore Café (126 Crosby Street) is worth a visit if only for the quiet (and gorgeous) respite from busy SoHo. Some of the most extraordinary art in all of history has been created in and about New York City—so don’t miss your chance to be an eyewitness.
Jamie Leigh is an obsessive traveler, an avid reader, and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her published works on literature, travel, and pop culture have appeared in magazines, blogs, anthologies, and webzines in the U.S. and abroad.