The 40 books every New Yorker must read

A New York bibliography for the discerning reader

By The Editors

The 40 Books Every New Yorker Must Read
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27 January 2016

Reading, n.: The act of reading; perusal; recitation.

Anyone still doing that?

A question that needs not an answer, but rather a firm push in the write direction:

The 40 Books Every New Yorker Must Read, an unranked, genre-neutral, incomplete-but-when-is-anything-ever-really-complete celebration of the most enchanting and inspiring voices that have made literal our fair city’s history.

Why these forty? Aside from those who could not be absent — McInerney or Martin Amis,  Walt Whitman to Tom Wolfe — our choices are wholly democratic.

These are by no means the best books written in, about or in spite of New York.

We just love them. And have learned from them. And hence desired to write about them.

Before you dig in — a few words on NYC from ye old Walt Whitman, who hobnobbed with a gang of prolific Bohemians in SoHo then at the literary haunt Pfaff’s, where they exchanged material they’d glistened from the granular streets and sidewalks of this fair(ish) city.

“There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.”

All that and more in the books below.

 The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
A character-driven, big-picture look at NYC during the the raucous 1980s. Ceremoniously weaving together a drama of racism, social status, ambition and greed. 

02 Just Kids by Patti Smith
Chelsea Hotel in the 60's. Was there ever more creative nexus? Everything one could desire from a memoir on Smith and Mapplethrope — romance and friendship, or the two wed, and how they shape who we become. 

03 Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
A poetry collection from the bearded fella. Whitman would spend his life revising Leaves of Grass until his death. Home to the enduring phrase, “I contain multitudes.”

04 Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas
As brilliant as it is hilarious, Delirious is an interwoven constellation of illustration and divergent writing styles weaving through experimental urbanism and controlled chaos - or as Koolhaas coins it, “Manhattanism.”

05 Bright Lights, Big City by James McInerney
In short, a love/hate affair with the fast lane, following a protagonist living in Manhattan as he owned it plowing through nightclubs, fashionable affairs and the wee morning hours. 

06 American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
A poetic account of a handsome, perfection-haunted Wall Street sycophant with ultra-violent after-hours engagements. Satirical commentary on rampant consumerism with a heavy dose of obsessive pop culture charm. 

07 The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
A memoir of youth growing up in a Long Island pub. The Tender Bar is a story of masculinity, maturity and the sometimes worthy, typically hilarious wisdom we glean from alcohol-laden tongues.

08 Zone One by Colson Whitehead
A “near-future,” post-apocalyptic story of a zombie-d New York renamed ‘Zone One.” A strange and engrossing read where pop culture, homogeneity and zombies create for equal parts bleak existence.

09 Dry by Augusten Burroughs
It’s a more or less completely inconsistent memoir, much like life itself. Dry speaks of a young Augusten you may have met in passing, seemingly normal, and never thought twice of it. Then, there’s the side you don’t know nor see. 

10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
A Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative following two Jewish cousins before, during and after WWII. Genuine, adventurous and ambitiously optimistic, it remains a definitive gem not only of New York, but American history and its immigrant culture.

11 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Also a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about yearning for love and the reality of loss. Thirteen-year-old Theo, through the power of art, finds companionship, comfort, transcendence and acceptance.

12 The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
The political machines and public authorities that - for better or worse - gave shape to this city affecting the landscape to this day.

13 The Devil's Playground by James Traub
Why is Times Square so Times Square-y? Here’s your answer.

14 Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
The semi-autobiographical novel banned for its “obscenity” until 1961 in the States. A sprawling masterpiece of a man’s escapades dense with brassy eroticism.  

15 10:04 by Ben Lerner
An out-of-the-box hurricane of a read intertwining several plot lines. Smart. Dialogue-driven. Must be experienced to be understood and loved, much like living in the city.

16 Passing by Nella Larsen
A deep dive into a woman’s multi-faceted journey of survival through 1920s Harlem. Canonized as a pivotal work for its complex examination of race, identity and gender.

17 Inferno: A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles
“My English teacher’s ass was so beautiful.” So begins Myles’s nod to Dante’s Inferno, saturated with humanity and sex and a relevant read for any young NYer still howling at the moon today.  

18 How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis
A stark look at the tenements of 1870s New York. Themes include hunger, homelessness, joblessness and despair. A rattling and necessary read. 

19 Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
A cult classic on repression and submission. Examining compromised class systems in Brooklyn, Selby caused an uproar for his honest portrayal of drugs, violence, homosexuality and gang culture.

20 Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
If Catcher and the Rye’s sequel were told in the parameters of a modern-day Seinfeld-esque sitcom, wherein the writing is pithy and satirical. There’s also a sister who only eats cheeseburgers.

21 The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Emotional and intense, Plath’s semi-autobiographical novella that accounts for both the freedom New York has to offer as well a woman’s descent into the grips of insanity. 

22 Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
A magnum opus unraveling 1950s Harlem through the eyes of a nameless social figure born in the South and transposed in Harlem’s quaking culture.

23 Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Two accounts of 9/11 in the aftermath of the harrowing image of a shadowy man falling. A beautiful and tragic tale of how an event can ripple through and instantly change a person and a nation.

24 Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Grappling with identity and culture, an Irish woman struggles to find her place in the world. Where else other than New York to offer more answers and, thereby, more questions.

25 The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
A dark, yet accessible coming-of-age story and a gander at the wild, seemingly harmless, nature of young men. Main takeaway: no uppers before the game unless you wanna get schooled.

26 The Chosen by Chaim Potok
An intimate look at the strong silent presence of ultra-orthodox Judaism in late-60s Williamsburg as seen through the eyes of Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders.

27 Angels in America by Tony Kushner
A two-part “gay fantasia” through accounts of the human condition and struggles with modern-day pains including depression, AIDS and personal salvation.

28 Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
A book that embodies the rage and compassion of a perceptive boy in Harlem coming to terms with his relationship with his family and his church. Baldwin’s first major novel, semi-autobiographical.

29 The Edge Becomes the Center by DW Gibson
To live in the city is to adore, fear, but most of all, understand change. A present-day groundbreaking historical commentary on NYers effecting and becoming affected by gentrification.

30 The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto
The fantastical and forgotten narrative of New York’s Dutch roots keying why “boss” and “yankee” become city-centric slang.

31 Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
A portrait of a 19th century New York’s  gritty city streets as it begins to get its legs. Basically, an uprise against the state of time’s ideology.

32 The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
A sinister journey back to turn of the century Coney Island with a mermaid protagonist, a hundred-year-old turtle and the mysterious disappearance of a girl at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

33 The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A story of New York City socialites at the height of the Jazz Era. Light on penchants for commitment and laden with complexities about marriage, devil-may-care drama ensues.  

34 Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Ben dreams of a girl named Rose. A playful telling of two divergent time periods using Selznick’s inventive combination of written word and illustrations.

35 Here is New York by E.B. White
As nostalgic as it is still very relevant, White’s quintessential love letter to New York worth a thousand re-reads.

36 Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler
Mahler dives into 1977 New York when the air was hot with rivalry, political and social. Detailing accounts of Cuomo v. Koch, Billy Martin v. Reggie Jackson with highlights like the opening of Studio 54 and lowlights like the “Son of Sam” murderer and a city-wide blackout.


37 Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
A take on a historical gay tale, the story trails a lawyer who dismisses his everyday reel and plunges into the '70s Fire Island scene. 

38 Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
Funny in a way only a New Yorker could love. Named by  TIME magazine as one of the “best English-language novels from 1923 to present,” an account of John Self and his penchant for booze, bad food, money and drugs, but in an endearing way.

39 Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
One of the pivotal works in the wake of 9/11 that takes a pinhole view of a larger trauma through the eyes of a Dutchman attempting to embed himself in US culture while finding refuge in a gentlemen’s cricket club.

40 City Room by Arthur Gelb
From inside the city’s corner stone, a memoir of Gelb’s 45 years with the New York Times, from copy boy using morse code to managing editor amidst curiosity, creativity and cigars.

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