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What are the Best Books to Read before Visiting New York?

what to read before visiting New York City

You’re going to New York City. Maybe for the first time. Maybe for the hundredth time. What are the best books to read before visiting New York? Our correspondent Abbie Martin Greenberg shares our selected reads to help get you into a New York state of mind. They’re our picks for the best fiction and the best essays about New York, and any one of them would be great to read before your next business trip or vacation in New York. 

what to read before visiting new york city?

New York City is one of the most magical places in the world. From Brooklyn to the Bronx, the East River to the Hudson, the sprawling skyscrapers to the neon billboards, New York is unlike anywhere else. No wonder New York has inspired such an outpouring of the best fiction and essays since it was established.

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It is less that the city is perfect – as any frequent passenger on the MTA will tell you – and more that it feels all-inclusive. As if every possible narrative and opportunity can coexist within the ‘concrete jungle.’ New York is the place where paths cross, where miracles can happen, and where a million different minds come to live side by side.

what to read before visiting New York City

If you’re planning a visit, this can be a little overwhelming. How can you begin to wrap your mind around a city that resists easy categorization?

One good way to begin is to consume as many stories, poems and interpretations of the city as possible, to help lay the groundwork for creating your own. Of course, the list of all books, movies, television shows, plays and songs written about New York could go on for hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages. We’ve tried to whittle that down just a little bit by sharing our picks for some of the best fiction and the best essays about New York.

the best books to read before visiting new york

What to read before a vacation in New York? We would never dare propose a comprehensive list of all New York content, but consider these a few strong options and perhaps inspiration for further explorations of your own. We’ve erred on the side of collections, poems, novellas and short essays that you can dip in and out of, as opposed to epic reads.

These works will give you slices of the city from many different perspectives. And afterwards, you might even feel ready to step out of JFK, hail a yellow taxi (because Uber just isn’t iconic New York!), bite into a bagel, and begin your New York adventure.

1. Poems of New York

Poems of New York by Elizabeth Schmidt and Kevin Young is a pocket-sized volume that provides a comprehensive guide to some of the greatest poets who flashed in and out of the city’s orbit. They include Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, and many others. As it’s small enough to slide conveniently into a carry-on bag, this is the perfect collection to stowaway on your travels. 

2. Here is New York

Here Is New York by E.B. White is a love letter to the city and its residents. White took a stroll through Manhattan and wrote this wonderful essay about what he saw.

what to read before visiting New York

3. Central Park: An Anthology

New York is lucky enough to possess many neighborhoods and landmarks that could inspire entire anthologies. But perhaps one of the most worthy of being preserved in ink is Central Park, the enormous green space in the center of Manhattan that is, for many New Yorkers, the only taste of nature they typically get to experience. Before a vacation in a New York, why not read up on this incredible place?

Central Park: An Anthology is a breezy collection that includes essays from Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose, Jonathan Safran Foer, and more than a dozen other well-known writers and New Yorkers. If you are someone for whom fiction enriches reality, these stories and memories will give you a totally new way of looking at the park.

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4. Goodbye to All That

Joan Didion’s iconic essay about New York, Goodbye to All That appears in her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Whether or not you have read it before, it is absolutely worth another perusal before any visit.

It’s melancholy and beautiful, and perfectly manages to encapsulate a view of New York from the perspective of someone who has moved from the outside to inside, and who has grown up internalizing all of the city’s many legends.

It is also worth checking out the volume named for it, Goodbye to All That, which is a collection of similar musings from contemporary authors, all of whom have a unique vantage point from which they immortalize their experiences with the city. Understanding the ways in which New York can enchant and disappoint at the same time is a key part of understanding the city’s ethos, and these essays will steer you in the right direction.

5. Open City

A modern classic, Open City by Teju Cole is one of those unforgettable New York novels. It’s a wonderful book to read before a vacation in New York. Published in 2011, it follows the experiences of Julius, a young Nigerian immigrant, as he explores the city during his final year of a medical residency. Its lack of a direct plot only goes to epitomize the way New York can sometimes feel: like one sparkling chance encounter after another. The novel is rich with perspective and Cole’s writing is beautiful, giving descriptions to the minute details of the city that might otherwise go unnoticed.

6. Through the Children’s Gate

In one of the best collections of essays about New York City, Adam Gopnick, writer for The New Yorker and keen observer of (and member of) the elite media class details his impressions and experiences of Manhattan. As the parent of two young kids circa 2001, he shares his insights in the delightful Through the Children’s Gate. Despite writing about the tragic aftermath of 9/11, this book is an insider’s view of the romance of the city and why so many choose to call it home.

7. Up from Orchard Street

If you’re looking for something that is truly warm and fuzzy to read before visiting New York,  Up From Orchard Street by Eleanor Widmer is for you. It’s a New York novel chronicling another era: the turn of the century, as seen through the eyes of a large immigrant family living on the Lower East Side. The novel is sweet and full of heart, and will bring you joy while also transporting you to a bygone New York City.

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8. Ragtime

If you want even more historical fiction to read before your vacation in New York, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow offers another window into the city’s past. In his well-known novel, he co-mingles famous figures and his own characters, letting the reader travel through facts as if they were fiction, and fiction in such a way that it feels like fact.

Doctorow explores tensions of race and class as they existed in the early twentieth century in Manhattan, giving the reader the full picture of how New York would have felt more than a hundred years ago. And if you find yourself a fan, you can also listen to excellent cast recording of the musical adaptation, created by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

what to read before visiting New York

9. Go Tell it on the Mountain

The great James Baldwin was a native New Yorker. And his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, is one of the best works of fiction set in New York. The autobiographical novel is focused on the life of a young man growing up in Harlem. This is a perfect read if you want to channel the pain and joy of the Harlem Renaissance.

If you want more Baldwin as you ease into a New York state of mind, you might also consider diving into Another Country. In it, he evokes New York City (and 1950’s Greenwich Village, specifically) with luminous prose.

10. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Truman Capote embodied the brash visionary spirit of Manhattan as well as anyone who ever took the city by storm. And Breakfast at Tiffany’s is his iconic New York story.

what to read before visiting New York

11. New York by New York

Assouline’s gorgeous coffee table book, New York by New York, is a perfect glamorous whirlwind tour of the city. A perfect book to browse through before visiting New York. It’s a panoramic view of New York through the expert eyes and iconic images of leading photographers. From Edward Steichen to Peter Lindbergh, the images are stunning. They’re paired with texts and quotes from top writers including E.B. White, Edith Wharton, Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney. Marrying some of the best essays about and best photographs of New York is a winning combination.

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12. The Algonquin Round Table

There are lots of great books about the iconic group of writers who gathered at the Algonquin to talk, smoke, drink and then go on to write brilliant prose. Their bon mots about the city still stand the test of time, making the group the perfect subjects for a book to read before a vacation in New York.

The Algonquin Round Table: A Historical Guide by Kevin Fitzpatrick is a terrific overview of the world created by writers like Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, George Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Harold Ross. They went on to illustrious careers as founders and writers for publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Eavesdrop on their conversations and experience the dagger-sharp wit of a group of true New Yorkers.

what to read before visiting New York

13. Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann’s splendid novel Let the Great World Spin is set in New York City in the 1970’s. It begins with the riveting spectacle that actually occurred in August 1974, when a tightrope walker is ran, danced, and leaped between the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan, suspended midair a quarter mile above the ground. It lets us hear the voices of New Yorkers who were “unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the ‘artistic crime of the century.’” 

14. Netherland

We think one of the best works of fiction set in New York City is the highly-acclaimed novel Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, a New York banker originally from the Netherlands finds himself lost in the wake of 9/11. His wife has taken his son and departed for London. Eventually, he’s taken in by a charming Trinidadian who introduces him to the vibrant subculture of immigrants and cricket matches that thrives in the city. What unfolds is a struggle for meaning in the wake of tragedy, with all of New York as the stage.

15. Only in New York

New this year, the photography staff of the New York Times has compiled Only in New York, a handsome set of images published in collaboration with elegant bookstore and publisher Rizzoli New York. Over 500 photos from the Times’ archives have been selected and paired in clever, humorous, and poignant diptychs that capture the spirit of the city in a unique and authentic way. It would make a wonderful luxury gift for a resident or a visitor to the Big Apple.

16. A Book Lover’s Guide to New York

It’s fitting to end our list of what to read before visiting New York with a brand-new publication that will delight anyone who loves books and reading and is coming to New York City. A Book Lover’s Guide to New York by Cleo Le-Tan is an illustrated guide to New York City for readers, writers and bookworms. It showcases the city’s best bookshops; libraries; homes and favorite watering holes of world-famous writers; and scenes from literary classics. It will be bring the best fiction and the best essays about New York to life. It’s a wonderful love letter to everything literary in New York City.

great reads before visiting new york city

That’s it – our suggestions for what to read before visiting New York City. Read one or more of what we think are the best fiction and the best essays before vacation, and you’re guaranteed to end up in a New York state of mind.

We’ll let one of the many smart and sassy New Yorkers have the last word here. That is the thing about New York,” wrote Dorothy Parker in 1928. It is always a little more than you had hoped for.

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Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema, which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.

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