A Literary Legacy: 6 Books to Read Before Visiting New York
Experience the city’s hustle and bustle between the covers of these celebrated literary works.
Any New Yorker will tell you that their hometown is the center of the universe. The authors on this list all New York natives take such braggadocio a step further: they memorialized their love for the city that never sleeps in print.
Whether you’re dreaming of visiting the city or have a trip in the works, these essential reads will paint a vivid picture of New York before you even arrive. So, without further ado, we present the six must-read New York books for daydreamers and trip planners.
1. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
It was the old New York way…the way people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than scenes, except those who gave rise to them.
If Gossip Girl were set at the turn-of-the-century with a more intellectual spin, you’d get the American classic, The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer is a well-meaning, sheltered, elite New Yorker whose rigid conventions are shattered when he meets an exotic society outcast, Ellen Olenska. His fascination can only go so far, however Newland is engaged to another product of the Gilded Age high society. Aside from a helluva love story, perhaps the best part of Edith Wharton’s novel are the rich descriptions of New York social life, from living room architecture to the politics of party invitations.
2. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.
Sure, you’ve seen the poster of Audrey Hepburn in a black dress and pearls but have you read the book that started it all? Truman Capote’s novel follows the year-long friendship between the novel’s unnamed narrator and his quirky, restless, ever-stylish neighbor, Holly Golightly. In her brownstone apartment, Holly hosts martini-soaked parties attended by millionaires and gangsters, but she never loses sight of her dream: to find a place as magical as Tiffany’s, the jewelry store for which the book is named.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.
If you weren’t required to read this iconic book in ninth grade English class, now’s your chance. And trust us there’s a reason why Fitzgerald’s short novel is an American classic. Not only does The Great Gatsby provide the ultimate depiction of the decadence, shallowness, and splendor of New York’s Jazz Age parties; it also offers a captivating story told in beautiful prose. Don’t fool yourself into believing that Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest stint as Jay Gatsby does the novel justice. This is one definite must-read (not must-watch) before coming to New York.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go?
Here’s another English class staple. Alongside a healthy dose of teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye puts a literary spin on New York’s most famous tourist destinations. As we follow Holden Caulfield’s hormone-fueled romp through the city, readers are transported to Greenwich Village, Grand Central Station, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and Central Park. Whether you deem New York’s citizens as phoney as Holden does is up to you.
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven…It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
Before the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg was hipster central, it was home to immigrant families like protagonist Francie Nolan’s. This classic coming-of-age story follows Francie over the first 20 years of her life as her aspirations lead her out of the Brooklyn slum where she grew up. This family tale is as moving, bittersweet, and sublime as they come.
6. Here Is New York by E.B. White
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.
Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White didn’t just write about wise spiders and talking pigs. In this longform essay, E.B. White penned the quintessential love letter to Manhattan. For a dose of inspiration and a welcome reminder of the city’s overwhelming possibilities, read this on your trip over the Manhattan Bridge, Hudson River, or on the JFK tarmac.
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