When I was in school in Jamshedpur, students were forbidden from opening the glass cupboards full of books. Instead, we were called, roll-number wise, to pick a book, from an “age-appropriate selection” of four books laid out for us, on the librarian’s table.
So when my parents moved to New York, I gaped incredulously at the United States (US) library system. If ever there was heaven on earth, the Mid-Manhattan public libraries are it!
If you are visiting New York in the summertime, begin at the Reading Room at Bryant Park. A few steps away is the magnificent Rose Reading Room, and across the street is the renovated Mid Manhattan library. You need to be a New York resident to borrow books, but the reading rooms and most events and book sales are open to everyone.
If you’d rather buy books, stroll over, on 6th Avenue, to the Kinokuniya bookstore with its distinctive Japanese collection.
New York is a literary city, and on each visit, you might discover different haunts and uncover unseen bits of its bookish history. Last week, at my Airbnb in Harlem, I found myself a few streets away from the townhouse of the poet, Langston Hughes. A short walk led me to Revolution Books, a bookstore of activist writing, ranging from James Baldwin to Esi Edugyan.
I moved downtown a few days ago and am now a walk away from the spectacular Strand Bookstore. If you have time for just one bookstore, Strand Books with its impressively curated immense collection, is surely the place to go. When you are pleasantly tired of book browsing and buying, head to Pete’s Tavern for a $24 boozy book brunch. Imbibe inspiration from the spirit of Ludwig Bemelmans who wrote the first lines for Madeline here and from O’Henry too.
For a more intense flavour of New York, here are seven books for you.
Book 1 of 7: Historical Murder Mystery
On a sweltering August evening in 1909, as Sigmund Freud disembarks from a steamship, accompanied by Carl Jung, his rival and protégé, a young heiress is found murdered in an apartment across town. A serial killer is on the loose and Freud and Jung use their psychological expertise to help crack the case. The Interpretation of Murder is a clever mix of fact and fiction- Freud did indeed visit America at that time, although the murders are fictional. The most enthralling part is the backdrop, the sense of New York, as it smelled and felt, with the streets full of manure from horse-drawn carriages and rising skyscrapers.
For a more contemporary New York feel, go straight to Paul Auster’s mesmerising and metaphysical murder stories in his New York Trilogy.
Book 2 of 7: Snarky Mommy Lit
A young mother is in tears when she is cold-shouldered by the snobby mommies of Park Avenue. She decides to draw on her background in anthropology, examining the elite New Yorkers just like she would study a troop of baboons. Primates of Park Avenue is the snarky story of this educative exercise. Suddenly the mommies don’t seem formidable anymore! As a cold-shouldered mommy myself, I so related to this memoir.
Book 3 of 7: Immigrant Story with a Twist
Set during the 2008 financial crisis, this touching story follows two New York families. Cameroonian-American Imbolo Mbue delivers a vivid sense of New York. The action moves between Harlem and the Hamptons, addressing themes like belonging and finding a sense of purpose. If this sounds like your standard striving immigrant story Behold The Dreamers will surprise you.
Book 4 of 7: Gangster Saga
The Godfather by Mario Puzo and the Godfather films that are based on this book, are set across different locations in New York. There is the Corleone family home in Staten Island and landmarks around the city like a cemetery in Queens and St. Patricks Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. It’s a fun exercise to re-read the book and visit these literary locations around the city, where scenes of the film were shot.
Book 5 of 7: A Literary Guide
A Book Lovers Guide to New York is a beautifully produced book about the literary sights of New York. It is organised area-wise, moving northwards, from the Financial District and the East and West Villages to the Upper East and West and Harlem, to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. It covers literary institutions like The Centre for Fiction in Brooklyn, famous writers’ houses and lots of bookstores.
Erica Jong walks through the Upper East side, Walt Whitman crosses the Brooklyn Ferry, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti travels to ‘The Pennycandystore Beyond the El’ in this gem of a book. Poems of New York explores quintessential New York landscapes like the subway and fire escapes to the Twin Towers that once were, through bridges, tunnels and museums, bringing us the sights and sounds of a New York state of mind.
Book 7 of 7: Ironic Romance
In this fabulously written love story, Edith Wharton satirises nineteenth-century aristocratic New York society. The Age of Innocence won a Pulitzer prize, and has been made into a film as well.
Moving back to India, to Pakistan and the realm of the imagination, is Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. This translation from Hindi has hit the headlines for winning the International Booker Prize. I must go back to this atmospheric book and this time I will persist and be drawn in.
That’s all for May. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about your favourite bookstores and libraries.
Next week, we inaugurate Pride Month with seven inspiring LGBTQIA books.
Until then, happy reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading requests or suggestions, write to her at [email protected]
The views expressed are personal
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