51. Harriet the Spy
Fact: All native New York kids are precocious know-it-alls who are very entertaining subjects for readers young and old. Need proof? Start with this book, which has aged very well, and come to a quick understanding about why these kids are all so smart. (Hint: It’s because they’ve got to do something to get the attention of their always-busy parents.)
52. Autobiography of Malcolm X
New Yorker or not, every American should read this book. It does, after all, powerfully and lucidly depict the racial, class, and economic struggles that Malcolm fought during his life, all of which still continue in one form or another to this day, not least in New York, where gentrification has disrupted, if not destroyed, much of the areas of the city that Malcolm called home.
53. The Camperdown Elm
Moore’s ode about the most famous tree in Prospect Park—a curious-looking more-than-century-old elm whose branches grow low and parallel to the ground—was more than just a poem: It was an entreaty to the city to take better care of its parks and the living things within them. Well, it worked, and the Camperdown Elm can be enjoyed near the Boathouse in Prospect Park, and all New Yorkers should heed Moore’s example and appreciate and cooperate to preserve our green spaces as much as we can.
54. Goodbye to All That
The essay that launched a million other essays, Didion’s original is absolutely worth a read (or reread, or re-reread) because of how perfectly it captures the weariness we all eventually feel about this city. But don’t be too disheartened! Didion came back. (They alllll come back!!!) (No, they don’t.) (But that’s ok.)
55. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
McBride’s memoir is a combination autobiography and ode to his mother, who escaped an oppressive family life in Virginia to come to New York, where she married, was widowed, and married again (having had twelve children along the way), all the while working hard to make sure those children would have the best educations and chances in life. If that isn’t a New York success story, I don’t know what is.
56. Rosemary’s Baby
Sooo much for New Yorkers to learn in this, maybe the scariest city-based book ever. First, don’t make friends with your neighbors. Second, don’t marry an actor. But also: Third, if the price for getting an apartment in the Dakota is to have a child by Satan? Well. Where do we sign up?
57. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Isn’t it every New Yorker’s fantasy to live in a museum? Make that fantasy a
reality more fully realized fantasy by reading this classic children’s novel.
58. Brown Girl Dreaming
Woodson’s autobiography-in-verse is an incredibly moving and beautifully rendered look at what she experienced growing up in the 1960s and 70s as she realized that the way she could best find and use her voice was through her writing.
59. Desperate Characters
Fox’s portrayal of a disintegrating marriage whose fissures are analogous to the once-crumbling city is an astute look at New York in the late 60s-early 70s. It would certainly be interesting to see a modern take on this book. What, after all, would a de Blasio-era marriage look like, now that we have a pretty good idea of what it is to live in de Blasio’s New York?
60. Tar Beach
Sometimes you want to read about New York, and sometimes you just want its beauty rendered in such a way as to let you relax into its colors and lights, its sights and spectacles. Let Tar Beach do that for you; feel instantly transported to a hot summer roof in August.
61. Just Kids
Smith’s memoir has everything you’d want in a coming-of-age in New York tale, by which I mean: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. But mostly, it strikes such a deep chord because it’s really a look at how powerful friendships are in the formation of who we are as adults, and how romantic love may come and go, but the deepest love is usually reserved for our friends.
62. After Claude
Meet Harriet Daimler, the quintessential New Yorker—full of devastating one-liners and all the withering put-downs you couldn’t dream up if you had days to think of a decent retort. Meet Harriet Daimler, and thank me later.
63. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Is there anything more New York than true crime stories? No! (Thus the everlasting power of Law and Order.) This novel is based on a truly chilling story of sex and single bars and, ultimately, murder, which might seem like it happened in the distant past, but has total relevance now because sex and murder always do. They just do.
64. Great Jones Street
Haha, remember when the East Village was dirt cheap and for derelicts? Yeah, neither do I. But we could pretend we knew all about that time by reading DeLillo on the dark and dirty world of rock-and-roll.
65. Let the Great World Spin
I don’t know about you, but I can’t even see photos of Phillippe Petit walking across a tight rope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center without getting physically nauseous. Luckily, McCann doesn’t force you to look at photos, just read this book and see how deftly he uses that event to unify many otherwise seemingly disparate plot threads to great effect.
66. The Fortress of Solitude
Just as it’s hard to remember that the East Village used to be gritty, it’s difficult to think that the stretch of Boerum Hill where townhouses now sell for many millions of dollars used to be a sketchy place to raise children. But Lethem takes us all back to that time of pre-gentrified Brooklyn and throws in some superhero action for good measure.
Though written forty years ago, Adler’s prose feels decidedly modern; it’s kinetic and compulsively readable, reflecting the energy of the ambitious young people who have always populated this city, the ones who are always moving on, looking for what’s next and new.
68. Native Speaker
Lee does an incredible job rendering the cultural tensions that his protagonist, Henry Park, feels as he grows up in America feeling isolated and alienated from both his Korean background and his New York reality.
69. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning
Mahler tackles one of the most dire times in New York’s four hundred year history: the late 70s, and, specifically 1977. It was the Summer of Sam, the city was verging on bankruptcy, there was mass looting and arson following a blackout, and the Yankees won the World Series. So, you know, it wasn’t all bad.
70. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years of Music that Changed New York Forever
Interested in feeling some pride in this damned city? Well, take a look back at the years 1973-77, when New York birthed music scenes ranging from hip hop to salsa in the Bronx to punk and dance on the Lower East Side. It might have been a shitty time for the local economy, but it was a creative person’s playground. (Hey! What can we interpret about the creative scene of today based on this info? Hmmm.)
71. Requiem for a Dream
To love New York is to know what addiction is; it can’t be good for you, and it will take all your money to sustain your lifestyle. Selby gets this. No wonder he eventually moved to LA.
72. The Flamethrowers
Have you always wanted to break into the New York art scene just so you can go to one of the dinner parties? I mean, first: Dream bigger. But second: Just read Kushner’s absolutely brilliant novel instead. It’s far more entertaining than just about any dinner party I’ve ever attended, and you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing while you read it.
73. Dancer from the Dance
Holleran’s vivid depiction of New York’s emerging gay scene is notable for demonstrating how wild and free the city’s gay community was during the brief time period post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. It’s an exhilarating read thanks to the preponderance of Fire Island party and bathhouse scenes, but it can’t help but be bittersweet once you realize the horror that lies silently in wait.
74. The Swing Voter of Staten Island
Sure, I guess it’s a good thing that Nersesian’s dystopic vision of 1980s New York is just a fantasy (it’s better that all of Manhattan wasn’t taken out by a combination of radical 70s political groups), but also, it’s pretty damned fun to dip into this warped vision of reality, if only for a little while.
75. Winter’s Tale
Ok, though written in 1983, this book doesn’t really take place in 1980s New York, but it also doesn’t really take place in any New York, fantastical as it is, what with the whole magical white horse deal. So what relevance does it even have to New Yorkers today? Well, considering it’s basically an allegory for the powers of capitalism, it’s an apt read for New Yorkers, magical or not. Also? Helprin can really write the hell out of a sentence.
76. Girl in Translation
Kwok’s novel tells the story of a young immigrant girl who is an excellent student during the day while working at a sweatshop pretty much whenever she’s not in school, all the while trying to figure out where exactly she belongs in society. The novel parallels Kwok’s own experience as an immigrant to New York who attended the prestigious Hunter College High School all the while working in a clothing factory.
77. Money: A Suicide Note
Simply put: Every New Yorker should read this book because you will only know if you’re a true New Yorker if you understand why the character Lorne Guyland is so funny. (Also, the novel is brilliant in just about every other way.)
78. The Bonfire of the Vanities
Wolfe’s novel captures a specific type of 1980s New York—one filled with money, racial tensions, grandstanding public figures, and a voracious media—that doesn’t feel all that different from… today’s New York. Only now people call themselves Masters of the Universe ironically. (I hope?)
Gaitskill does a masterful job rendering the complexities of a close, troubled friendship between two women, and the ups-and-downs it necessarily takes over the years. There is a clarity to Gaitskill’s storytelling that so purely evokes what it is to have dreams and lose them and try to build a life around that loss that is as haunting and pure as anything I’ve ever come across.
80. Angels in America
Kushner’s sprawling meditation on the AIDS crisis and gay identity in America is a searing, exquisite look at the changing world in which his characters suddenly find themselves. It also serves as an eye-opening indictment to one of the most detestable and recognizable New York-style bad guys out there: lawyer Roy Cohn.
81. Bright Lights, Big City
Who among us doesn’t still think that McInerney’s version of New York—full of endless cocaine and glittering parties, and just the right amount of devastating heartache—exists out there, hidden just out of reach? And who among us doesn’t think that we’d be the only ones to handle this scene with the appropriate blend of full-scale enjoyment and protective skepticism, guaranteeing that we alone would get out alive? And who… ah, forget it. Just read the book. It really holds up.
82. Slaves of New York
Janowitz is a personal favorite (and not just because I fondly remember her New York Press column in the late 90s, in which she detailed her Park Slope parenting life), and does not get nearly the acclaim for accurately portraying 1980s New York that her male contemporaries do. Slaves is proof, though, that Janowitz really gets it, though, revealing, as it does, that New York’s sparkling facade is—for the most part—just a cover-up for the mundanities of every day life. Basically, underneath all that glitter reside a whole lot of people trying to scrounge up rent money.
83. American Psycho
The best novel about the perils of nouvelle cuisine and the beauty of business cards ever written. Just, um, be prepared to develop an even more intense fear of rats than ever before. And business cards, I guess.
84. St. Mark’s Is Dead
Calhoun’s just-published memoir is an insightful look into why we mythologize the New York of our youth (which, well, it’s because it’s the New York of our youth!), while simultaneously exploring the many iterations of one of Manhattan’s most famous streets, which has played home to such disparate but quintessential characters as Peter Stuyvesant, Emma Goldberg, and Lou Reed.
85. A Little Life: A Novel
This novel is a dark, troubling foray into the world of four friends who live in the city following their college graduations; the past of one character is filled with trauma and abuse, coloring every relationship he has throughout his life. What does this have to do with New York? Well, the city serves as a particularly apt background for this type of narrative, filled as it is with its own subterranean layers of darkness.
86. The Emperor’s Children
This book manages to compellingly convey that all too important time of a New Yorker’s life: her 30s. Think about it, really, what most people in the country go through in their 20s (frequently involving building a family, buying a home, etc.) usually take a New Yorker an extra 10 years, already so occupied are we with just surviving our 20s, i.e. finding a way to pay rent every month.
Perhaps one of the first, but still one of the best, novels to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, Netherland manages to both be about the horrific events of that day and transcend them, never veering into easy sentimentality. Also, O’Neill knows a lot about New York’s cricket-playing culture, something with which we at Brooklyn Magazine are also fascinated.
88. The Colossus of New York
Whitehead captures the energy and movement of New York City via a series of literary sketches that so perfectly mimic the pace of city life that the writing actually takes our breath away at times—another thing it has in common with this city.
89. The Brooklyn Follies
What’s your favorite type of New Yorker? Did you say “the grumpy old ones”? Same! Well, get your fill of cantankerous elderly city-dwellers in Auster’s book, and don’t be bummed out that there is joy and redemption to be found in these pages. What’s fiction for, anyway, if not to try to make the best out of the most depressing parts of our lives?
90. The Magicians
Grossman’s book is another selection on this list that imagines New York as a nexus for magical beings. Which, yes. That’s the point. New York can feel like that, even though it’s really not and, instead, is more of a jumping off point for people to find their own magical worlds. Or something. I don’t know. This is a great novel though.
Oh, to be young and horny and on your own in New York City. Schrag brilliantly, hilariously captures this time in a teenagers life, only, you know, complicates it a little bit by having said horny teenager be a guy pretending to be a trans-man. Complicated, right? Right. But what’s not complicated is how fun this book is, particularly as it takes the main character—and the readers—on jaunts into the social minefield-filled worlds of sex parties and party-parties and so on.
92. Lush Life
That Price manages to convey some of the grit and despair of New York that most people think was lost beginning in the Bloomberg years is a feat in and of itself, but that he manages to so ably demonstrate the sharp divide between the haves and have nots in 21st century New York and the attendant tensions is worthy of all the praise we can muster.
93. Visitation Street
Pochoda’s crime novel is captivating from the first page to the last and she depicts Red Hook better than anyone else since Hubert Selby Jr.
94. Open City
Cole’s novel depicts a meandering narrator whose vivid descriptions of the different people and places he encounters in New York are as accurate a depiction of this city’s mosaic-like qualities that I’ve found before.
95. A Visit from the Goon Squad
Egan’s novel is really more a collection of related short stories and few take place in New York City, but that’s ok, because the ones that do are really great—specifically one set in a future New York, where children communicate with their parents almost solely by electronic device, so, like, the future is now.
96. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Waldman so perfectly captures the awfulness of the ego-driven Brooklyn-based creative man circa 2013 that I kind of can’t even see this book on my shelf without wanting to pick it up and throw it across the room, so repellent do I find him. Is this a good thing? In this case, yes. Because accurately identifying something terrible is the first step in destroying it.
97. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel
This graphic novel is a hilarious and incisive portrait of parenthood in Brooklyn right now that I think it should be mandatory reading for every woman who is contemplating having kids here. Plus, because this parent is a divorced mom, there’s also plenty in here about the online dating scene, meaning Ulinich’s book is a gift that just keeps on giving.
98. Infinite Home
The beauty of living in New York is that most of us live virtually (and oftentimes literally) on top of one another, and yet our paths rarely cross with those of even our closest neighbors. But when they do? It usually, at the very least, makes for some interesting stories. Alcott beautifully captures the tragi-comic magic that results in neighborly stars aligning.
99. Preparation for the Next Life
Rather than deal with the parts—and people—of New York which are usually identified as being central to the city’s character, Lish focuses on marginalized people, and in doing so, he brings their stories to the forefront of a larger, important question about the future of this city, namely: How do we bring these people away from the edge?
100. The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century
And what better way to end this list than with a book that speaks to the latest reality, the newest iteration, of this ever-changing, always-developing city? None! There is no better way. Via extensive, at times genuinely shocking interviews, Gibson tells the story of gentrifying (and gentrified) New York. It’s a story revolving around money, racism, classism, power, and greed. There are villains and there are victims. There are humans. This is the story of New York right now, and it’s as riveting as it is painful to read, leaving us, as it does, with no doubt that any utopic view we might want to take of this city, is at best blindly optimistic and, at worst, willfully obtuse. Happy reading!
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