Reading New York

by Don Friedman on December 7, 2017

Curbed has put together a list of books about New York. They limited it to fifth books, but the list could easily be five hundred.

There are about 36 non-fiction books on the list (“about” because some of the books are a little fuzzy on fiction versus non) and 14 novels; over the years I’ve read 19 of the non-fiction books but only two of the novels. Amusingly enough, the novels I read are children’s books, and I read them more than forty years ago. I have read plenty of novels set in New York, but I guess they haven’t received the official seal of being “New York novels.”

Of these fifty books, there are a few I would single out:

  • The Encyclopedia of New York City by Kenneth T. Jackson is the only reference book about the city you need, assuming you need such a reference at all.
  • The Power Broker by Robert Caro is a polemic that has created its own backlash, but it remains a great description of the mid-twentieth-century changes in the cityscape.
  • Here Is New York by E.B. White is an essay really, rather than a book, even if it’s published on its own. It’s also the best description I’ve ever seen of the feeling of this city.
  • The Great Bridge by David McCullough is the reason I studied structural engineering. Thanks to this book, when I was sixteen I wanted to be Washington Roebling.

Finally, a book that’s not on the list: A History of New York by François Weil. Weil is French, and looks at New York not as an American city but rather as the westernmost outpost of the Atlantic world. It’s a slightly jarring perspective, but one that helps put all the other books in context.

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