Favorite Books About New York
Sep 25, 2000
Inspired by Robert Caro's The Power Broker, Ric Burns spent the past decade working on his own project about the city, "New York: A Documentary Film," a 14-hour PBS miniseries. His team also put together a companion book, New York: An Illustrated History. The Power Broker was the first book that Ric Burns read about New York City when he moved here for college 24 years ago but for all that, The Power Broker is not Ric Burns' favorite book about New York City. "It's hard to beat Here is New York by E.B. White , a 50-page essay about New York that registers the city's complexity, but at the same time captures its spirit. It manages to penetrate a subject that is almost infinitely vast." And then, he says, before The Power Broker, he would also list George Templeton Strong's diary and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
James Sanders, Burns' co-author, picks many of these same books, and then throws in what he considers classic New York novels: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Washington Square by Henry James, and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. You get the picture. Only a subject as vast as the City of New York could inspire so many writers -- two centuries' worth, starting with Washington Irving.
"There is a cottage industry of people who work on nothing but books about New York City," says John Howat, the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in charge of "Art and the Empire," the Met's exhibition about the city.
Only in New York could three mammoth projects all published recently -- the 575-page PBS companion book, by Ric Burns and James Sanders, with Lisa Ades the 1350-page The Encyclopedia of the City of New York edited by Kenneth Jackson and the 1382-page Gotham:A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, which won the Pulitzer Prize -- seem like just a few more titles on an infinitely expanding shelf of books about the city.
With so many choices, it is too daunting to compile a list of the best books about New York. More productive is a list of the favorites of New Yorkers who know what they're talking about.
Librarians: Reference and Romance
Ask a librarian for the Bible about New York City, and they are likely to cite three: "For those who can afford it," says Ruth Carr, the librarian in charge of local history for the New York Public Library, there is the extraordinary six-volume set of I.N. Phelps Stokes's Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498 - 1909. This monumental work, originally published over a period of 13 years starting in 1915 in oversized volumes that have become rare collectors' items, is a "wonderful history of the island and a wonderful place to find obscure details about Manhattan."
Librarian Joseph Ditta at the New-York Historical Society says their Bible is the Encyclopedia of New York. "We turn to it first. We get lots of different questions from people about New York and it usually has the answer. It saves a lot of hunting time, because someone else has done the research work for us. It is the most heavily-used thing we have."
Both Ditta and Carr also treasure the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Guide to New York City by Norval White and Elliot Willensky, which recently published its fourth edition. (Carr recommends all of them, "because things change") "It answers so many question about New York," says Ditta. "It has great pictures. It's the place to go to answer questions like "How old is my house?"
"I wouldn't really read any of these cover to cover," Ditta advises. "They're not designed to be read that way. They are very useful reference guides."
Other useful reference works: Landmarks of New York by Barbaralee Diamonstein ("useful like the AIA guide," says Ditta, "but it only has official landmarks.") and Gotham.
But ask New York librarians their favorite books rather than the most useful, and you get a different answer. E.L. Doctorow's Waterworks is Ruth Carr's. "He has a real sensibility and feeling [for] nineteenth-century New York City." Part of the novel's action takes place at the historic Croton Reservoir, which, she notes, was located on 42nd Street on the present site of the New York Public Library
The favorite of Harold Auberaughm, director of the Mercantile Library of New York, is Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos which captures the high energy and chaos of New York, especially in the 1930's."
The Mercantile Library has just given its Clifton Fadiman Prize, which goes to a work they think should be read more, to Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick "a highly literary .account of a young woman who comes to New York in the Fifties. It captures the anxieties of those times."
Two novels set in the city captured Paul Perkus, director of the Municipal Reference and Research Center. He read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when he was living in Brooklyn. "It gave me a romantic image of Manhattan, some of which has stayed with me to this day." He also likes Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, "another of those books that romanticize New York."
Historians: Bohemians And Branches
Though Edwin Burrows spent years looking at old books to research Gotham, it is three recent titles he reels off as "worth a look":
Christine Stansell's American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, "a smart, very readable account of Greenwich Village in its prime."
Graham Russell Hodges' Root and Branch "opens up the pre-Civil War history of African-Americans in the city."
Shaun O'Connell's Remarkable, Unspeakable New York offers "very astute explications of the city as depicted in 200 years of fiction."
"I also just finished a brilliant New York novel by Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector.
"I could add dozens of others."
James Driscoll, research director of the Queens Historical Society, starts closer to home, citing Queens in Old Photographs by Vincent Seyfried and William Asadorian, and Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, winner of a National Book Award, "an engrossing novel about growing up in an Irish-American family in Bayside, Queens in the 1940s and 1950s." But he is not a Queens chauvinist. Another one of his favorites is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
Booksellers: Bridges And Tunnels And Everything
At Three Lives and Co, an independent bookstore in the Village, the best-selling books, according to owner Jill Dunbar, are much the same as the most popular in the libraries: The Power Broker, The AIA Guide. Another favorite is Here is New York. But the most popular guide book may be one that lists neither the World Trade Center nor even Lincoln Center. The WPA Guide to New York, "focuses on what is classic in the city from the 1920's that survives today. It's a guide to buildings, murals, and public art projects built at time when more money was put into the city to do these sort of projects."
At Everything New York , an on-line store that is now selling books about NYC, owner Scott Lombardo's first pick is the Encyclopedia of New York City because "it has anything and everything," he says, which sounds like a motto. Other picks:
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough
The Parks and Its People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig
The choices of Margot Liddell, manager of Shakespeare and Company, are more obscure:
Lost New York by Nathan Silver "It cites all the famous buildings, before the Landmark Commission was established, that were wiped out."
The Mole People by Susan Toss "Very Interesting topic; at our downtown location there are mole people. There is a tunnel that leads underneath."
This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann "A touching story about a family that lives underneath the ground on the Upper West Side. Beautiful writing."
Writing New York, edited by Philip Lopate "This is especially great. It's a collection of works written by writers who are all from New York."
From Politicians To Gardeners
"New York," E.B. White wrote, "is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant."
And each can find his own New York book to read.
For Mark Goret, a Conservative Party district leader in the Bronx, the book is To Be Mayor of New York by Christopher McNickle. a "very good piece of social history" about ethnic politics and every mayor and mayoral election from the beginning of the twentieth century through Dinkins. "It explains why New York developed the way it developed"
Janet Marinelli, director of publishing for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, prefers "Central Park: Barnes and Noble Complete Illustrated Map and Guide" by Richard J. Berenson and Ray Carroll "I've been in Central Park a million times, but it gave me a whole new perspective on it." Her other favorite is "Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers" by Tania Bayard about the gardens of the Cloisters. "It's a charming little book about such a great place in the city" illustrated with medieval woodcuts.
Museum Director: A Mayor And A Mirror
"There are so many good ones, both fiction and nonfiction," says Robert MacDonald, director of the Museum of the City of New York. "I'll pick three." New York Intellect by Thomas Bender. "The best parts of the book talk about the developments in the nineteenth century. Many of the themes focus on the development of a philosophical society, groups that saw New York not only as a financial capital but also had a vision of it as an intellectual capital. These groups led to the creation of the public library, to the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Future Once Happened Here by Fred Siegel. "It's the story of the New Deal in New York City primarily, but also Los Angeles and Washington D.C, about how welfare got out of hand.. If you want to understand the political philosophy of Rudolph Giuliani, this is the book to read. Indeed, the mayor was affected by the book. It's a new philosophy for how cities should run, a very insightful book for those who grew up as liberals, whatever that means. It's quite an eye-opener."
Mirror for Gothamby Bayrd Still, "an anthology of writings about New York City from the time of New Amsterdam to the present. These are visitors to the city. If you're a New York addict, you really should read this book; if you want a quote about the city, it's a very good reference guide."
One of Robert Lange's favorites is Gotham by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, the history of New York up to 1898, because "though so many things in New York change, some issues return - are recycled - generation after generation. " Lange is the director of the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling for the Department of Sanitation, which may be why he paid particular attention to the history of garbage in the Gotham book. Even in Peter Stuyvesant's time, the garbage problem was big. "Most of the waste then was organic, it attracted a lot of vermin, was extraordinarily malodorous." Professionally, Lange does not see many books getting recycled. "We recycle soft-cover books. We do not recycle hardcover. The labor costs of removing the binding of a hard cover book exceeds the cost of recycling it. If people will take off the cover, we'll accept it. But we prefer that people reuse their books, give them to friends. Books should remain in circulation."
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