“Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book — and does.
- Groucho Marx
Long-term New Yorkers typically fall into one of three categories. First, there’s the native New Yorker, who was raised in the city and sees it, not as a place of adventure or success, but simply their hometown. Then, there’s the people who are here for the money, work and lifestyle. They came to the city for a specific job or to get ahead in a certain career and have stayed due to their success and the lifestyle it has granted them. Then, there’s the die-hard lovers of New York City. These are those full-time bartenders, baristas and nannies that work the side service jobs just to maintain living in the greatest city on earth. They may have come to the city to find success and pursue a career, but they choose to stay and struggle because they fucking love this city.
I fall into the last category– the freelance writer living paycheck to paycheck. I could have a more comfortable life somewhere else, but I'd rather spend $8 on a Bud Light here than live in a house with a backyard. I’ve often said I can’t imagine doing what I do here if I didn’t love this city. It’s expensive, exhausting and just hard. But in my opinion, totally worth it. As John Steinbeck once wrote,
"New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it - once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough."
This NYC passion I have drives most of my life's motives, including the books I read. I love the grime and grit of a NYC-based book over the typically sunny and bright disposition of LA ones. What can I say? I'm just a New York obsessed New Yorker.
Since I'm far from the only one, I narrowed down some of my favorites NYC books that are great for all different types of the New York obsessed New Yorkers.
For the struggling creative
This memoir by Patti Smith is one of my (and many others') favorite books of all time. Not to be dramatic, but I partially credit this book to helping me realize I wanted to quit my job and write more. As a poet, singer, writer and all-around artist, Patti Smith’s tale of finding her place in the world and New York City’s artistic scene can be applied to almost any creative experience, even in modern day New York. This self-discovery all happens while in an incomparable relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. If you're struggling to stay on track creatively, it’s easy to find inspiration in Smith's difficult, original and prosperous tale that she so purely shares.
For the name dropper
This enticing book is all about the interesting figures that occupied the West Village since it became an artist sanctuary. Stories about everyone from Walt Whitman to Jackson Pollock to Edna St Vincent Millay to Dylan Thomas are told with such descriptive color that you feel like you’re sitting next to them at Chumley's or White Horse Tavern.
For the Bob Dylan groupie
MAYOR OF MACDOUGAL STREET, by Dave Van Ronk
Bob Dylan came to New York with two people in mind to meet: Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk. Any true Dylan fan has already read his Chronicles: Volume 1. As wonderful as it is, it mainly focuses on how Dylan created his music. For a musician, that’s all well and good, but for a story teller more interested in history, I prefer Van Ronk’s unfinished memoir. Although he didn't reach the fame many other folk singers had at the time, he was a mentor to a lot of them and popular with most. They didn't call him the Mayor of MacDougal street for nothing. He retells his stories with such personable writing, it feels like he's talking directly to you. Which probably explains how he had me laughing out loud multiple times.
For the literary snob
Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard
This is another unfinished memoir by another village inhabitant. Broyard was a literary critic and editor who often wrote for the New York Times. In his sharp, short memoir, he provides incredibly personal stories about sex and literature through a raw passion and beautifully descriptive writing. If you don't believe me, Norman Mailer once wrote, "I've read two stories by Anatole Broyard. They are each first-rate, and I would buy a novel by him the day it appeared." Sadly, no novel was ever published, but this little memoir makes for an honorable substitute.
For the mob sympathizer
The Gangs of New York an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
This non-fiction paperback goes into great depth on the lesser-told stories of the early gangs in New York. Instead of the Cosa Nostra and the Westies, it's more Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys claiming their territory in the Five Points. If you're thinking this sounds an awful lot like Scorsese’s movie, you're right. This book of the same title was the inspiration for it. It has so much information that it's all any mob sympathizer like me needs to back up an argument on how and why organized crime started. (It's just business!)
For the free spirit
Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell
Anyone who likes books for characters rather than plot needs to read this one. It's a compilation of features written for The New Yorker by the renowned Mitchell back in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Instead of anecdotes about the famous, he tells the stories of everyday New York City eccentrics. It draws you in from the beginning with a humorous piece depicting the fun and lively history of McSorley’s up until the year it was published in the 1940. It maintains its rich personalities with tales of gypsy kings and Professor Sea Gull.
For the east sider
In case you haven't noticed, I’m a bit biased when it comes to NYC neighborhoods. I'll admit, I favor the west side over the east. To keep things fair I had to include this book about the grungy, punk history of the East Village told through the development of its most famous street. Born and raised on Saint Marks, Calhoun depicts its growth from the time it was Peter Stuyvesant’s farm up to Kids’ movie fame. She also includes quotes from first-hand interviews she conducted with people who lived, loved and helped create East Village culture.
For the Studio 54 wannabe
Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, by Bob Colacello
I went through a phase where I read every book I could find on Andy Warhol. I succeeded too, reading everything from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) to Popism. But this one was by far my favorite. As a feature writer and friend of Warhol, Colacello beautifully recounts some seriously crazy stories from a first-person perspective that you can’t get anywhere else. He perfectly paints Warhol as the brilliant, manipulative, fame-obsessed, complicated artist he was. He also doesn't hold back any juicy details about the Warhol entourage. He name drops and shares all kinds of crazy stories that took place during the wild years of the Silver Factory.