One of my biggest frustrations in life is that I’ve not yet been to New York. I was first supposed to visit when I was nineteen and backpacking around the world, but the death of a friend cut my trip short and I flew home early from LA. In the decade or so that has since passed, the time has never been quite right to go, and so I find myself, at the ripe old age of 32, yet to visit the Big Apple.
As a champion of armchair travel however, there are few things quite so satisfying as getting to know a place – whether a far-flung island or a city steeped in history – through the pages of a book. With that in mind, I asked the wonderful Meg Fee, whose stunning memoir, Places I Stopped on the Way Home looks back at the thirteen years she spent in New York to put together a New York Reading Guide for readers of The Literary Edit.
From a book that Meg read as a child, to one that featured in her memoir, read on for her suggestions for the very best books set in New York City.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I must have been twenty-four or twenty-five when I read this book. I read it sitting alone in restaurants and on the subway, and the whole thing gutted me. It is the story of a young boy wrestling with the death of his father who is killed in the September 11th attacks. The main character, Oskar, maps the city in search of answers. The book is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever read. It is one of those few books you read and know you’ll never again read it in full—it is just too complete and too devastating the first go around.
“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil R. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
I read this book as a child, but in thinking of my favorite books set in New York, am now newly desperate to get my hands on a copy. It is the story of a brother and sister who run away from home and take up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They get in by paying a penny for admittance. Up until last year the Met was pay what you will for admission, when the museum changed the policy, it broke the collective heart of New Yorkers—a tradition was lost (and for me, it meant this imagined story could never again take place). This book is joyful and imaginative and truly a classic.
“Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Oh this book, this book that my mother used to read aloud to me! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the story of a young girl, Francie, growing up in Williamsburg in the early 1900s. If ever there is a book that is a love letter to New York, imperfect as New York is, this is it. But more than that, it’s a love letter to tenacity and belief and grit and the beauty of the imperfect.
“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.’”
In my own book I reference this novel by Hanya Yanagihara. It is from A Little Life that I ripped the title page following a friend’s divorce—the page contained a small note from her husband. Before leaving the city, my friend gave be a bag of books and clear instructions, get rid of the note. I wrote about that experience in the essay, Lispenard Street, and I took the essay’s title from the book itself. Lispenard Street is where two of the main characters live following college. A Little Life follows four friends as they make their way in the city. It is a heartbreaking and important and stunning read.
“But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”
I read this book one fall in New York. I remember walking east across 57th street, the sky perfect and blue, the leaves falling, and thinking I was seeing exactly what Didion had seen—seeing exactly the city she’d written of. The book is an exploration of grief, of the strange place the mind goes to when it is trying to reconcile the unimaginable. The writing is stark and honest and often uncomfortable. But grief is many things and we experience it at different times. I found Didion’s words incredibly comforting as I navigated growing up in Manhattan and sorting out my own heartbreaks.
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Click here to read an extract from Meg Fee’s beautiful memoir, Places I Stopped on the Way Home.
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