This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volume One for some of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South.
Last month, I told you about four books I love because they remind me of home — something essentially Southern about their characters, their language, their Spanish moss-draped trees. Books are how we come to know and understand ourselves, but they also allow us to explore new worlds, and to love and claim them as our own. Long before I set foot in New York, I came to know it — or at least a version of it — through books. And even as I eventually got to know it in “real life,” visited and eventually moved here and carved out a corner of the urban mass for myself, my relationship with New York, the idea of New York, has continued to be vastly literary. There’s a moment in You’ve Got Mail, one of my all-time favorite New York movies, where Kathleen writes, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book,” and I think that is especially true in a place like New York, which has been fictionalized every which way for centuries. And as my relationship to the physical city has changed, so too has my relationship to the books set here, as I come to claim bits and pieces of the city as my own. These are three books I love, which I picked up at various crucial points along my journey of getting to know New York. From the childhood volumes that first captivated me, to the modern tales that shape how I think about my life here, and, of course, one for the wish list, because there is always so much more to read and not enough time, or bookshelves, for it all.
Classic Fiction: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Author: E.L. Konigsburg (New York, New York)
When It Was Published: 1967
When I Read It: somewhere in my youth or childhood (possibly age 8?), most likely in the corner of the St. Mary’s library
Where It Takes Place: largely, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Why I Love It: There were a few formative books in my childhood that first introduced me to the mythical place known as New York, but this was one of the most enchanting. I was utterly swept up in the story of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid (and with Claudia in particular, as a fellow big sister). Their story was a modern Peter Pan, and the Met was their Neverland, where there were four-poster beds to sleep on and pennies to pluck from fountains and school groups to follow around. When I went to the real-life Met for the first time as a teenager, it was like meeting a character from a dream. The bed was there, and the fountain, and I kept expecting to see the siblings tearing around the corner of the sculpture gallery, violin case in hand. This was the New York I first fell in love with: untamed, jubilant, and full of secrets.
Contemporary Fiction: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt (Greenwood, Mississippi)
When It Was Published: 2013
When I Read It: 2013, just after moving to New York
Where It Takes Place: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, and back again
Why I Love It: While Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, will always be my favorite (of her books, and among books in general), this Pulitzer Prize winner, which takes place largely in the West Village and Upper East Side of New York, will always hold a special place in my heart. I moved to New York in September of 2013, Tartt’s book was published towards the end of October of that year, and so it was the first book set in the city that I read while living here. I got swept up in the story, the richly drawn characters and the luscious language, as I always do with her work, but there was also a delight in reading street names or landmarks and actually recognizing them. Instead of the hazy New York fantasy I was accustomed to conjuring up in response to terms like “St. Mark’s Place,” I had memories, based in concrete reality, in which to set Tartt’s saga. Her city, or at least parts of it, felt like my own, and it made for an entirely different reading experience. As luck (or canny publicists) would have it, the painting that inspired the eponymous novel was on display at the Frick that same fall, and so upon finishing the book I stood in line on a blustery afternoon, crept down the carpeted halls of the mansion-turned-museum, and saw in three dimensions the little masterpiece that had inspired an engrossing reflection on beauty and death and art and growing up.
Nonfiction: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Author: Joan Didion (Sacramento, California)
When It Was Published: 1968
When I Read It: my senior year of college, as I was contemplating transitions and life as a writer and moving to New York
Where It Takes Place: Ok, caveat here: The bulk of this book takes place in California. However, the final essay, which earns it a place on this list, is set in New York.
Why I Love It: So really this entry is not for a book but for an essay, now rather zeitgeisty and well known, titled “Goodbye to All That.” It was the first thing I read in the first creative non-fiction writing class I ever took, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Something about the combination of Didion’s prose, the idea of being a young person trying to pursue an artistic life, the particular allure and callousness of New York, and the work of grappling with transitions struck a chord that resonated through my entire being. This essay made me fall in love with writing, and with the idea that I could be a writer, and with this whole genre of creative non-fiction that I had yet to truly explore. But it also made New York real to me in a way that nothing prior had. Didion was so honest, her voice so clear, when she spoke of her passion for the city, and the cruelty of having that fantasy dissolve like so many strands of cotton candy on her eager tongue. I’m not the only one who responded this way — the essay has inspired countless homages, articles, and even an entire anthology of other artists’ reflections on loving and leaving New York — but I think the magic of Didion’s writing lies in the way she seems to speak to each individual reader on a deeply personal level. She writes, she says, because she does not understand, and we read because we hope the breadcrumbs she left in her wake might lead us down a surer path.
On My Wish List: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Author: Michael Chabon (Washington, D.C.)
When It Was Published: 2000
Where It Takes Place: Brooklyn, mostly
Why It’s Awesome: Comic books! Bromance! The top of the Empire State Building! This book is largely regarded as Chabon’s best, an inventive comic epic infused with a lot of heart and inspired by his Brooklyn-native father’s tales about growing up in the borough I know call home. The story revolves around Josef Kavalier and his cousin Sam Clay, artist/refugee and writer/entrepreneur. The novel’s praises have been sung up and down the presses (with a Pulitzer to boot), but I think Shelley Harris, writing in The Independent, might be my favorite: “Ideally, I would underplay this. I would temper my language, or slip in ‘Kavalier and Clay’ among other recommendations as if it were just an ordinary book. That way, its genius will come as a revelation, and be all the sweeter for it. But I’m going to state right now that this is an astounding novel, everything a great story should be, and that it knocks into a cocked hat all the specious arguments which seek to separate ‘readability’ from ‘good writing.’”
And An Update: I finished “Salvage the Bones,” the wish list entry in volume one of this series, and was utterly enchanted by Jesmyn Ward’s evocative tale of a family of motherless children hovering on the verge of adulthood and trapped in the eye of a storm. Esch, the book’s 14-year old protagonist, is as strong and complex as the mythic Greek characters she reads about, and each member of the family (human and canine) is breathtaking in his or her passion and humanity. Two thumbs way up, above the floodline.