19 Quintessential Books About New York City

The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The City So Nice They Named It Twice. New York City occupies a place in books—both fiction and nonfiction—like few other locales. Whether you’ve lived there all your life, or you have dreams of visiting and seeing what the fuss is all about, these are 19 of the best books about New York City to tap into your nostalgia, feed your wanderlust…or both.

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The Best Nonfiction Books About New York City

1. Up In The Old HotelBy Joseph Mitchell

The renowned New Yorker journalist’s collection of painstakingly rendered portraits should be required reading for everyone. Not only is it a fascinating glimpse into the New York City of the mid-20th century, but Mitchell’s thoughtful and elegant prose makes his fondness for the city contagious.

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2. Just Kids by Patti Smith

Smith’s remarkable memoir tells the story of her longtime relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, against the backdrop of a gritty city during a magical time (NYC in the 1960s).

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3. The Lonely CityBy Olivia Laing

After an unexpected mid-30s break up and relocation to a series of Lower East Side sublets, Laing explores the isolation of the city by immersing herself in its artistic world. Inspired by the achievements of outliers—including Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz, the author finds surprisingly comforting insight into the value of urban solitude.

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4.By Brandon Harris

A bright-eyed, freshly graduated aspiring filmmaker moves to a historic Black enclave…and finds himself in a budding Brooklyn scene now popular among artistic gentrifiers. Part coming-of-age tale, part sociocultural history, Harris’s narrative highlights the challenges of race and community in 21st-century urban life.

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5. Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to get sucked into this book, a fascinating cross-section of NYC in 1977: a pivotal year marked by crime, economic crisis, the opening of Studio 54, a bitter mayoral election and, yes, baseball.

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6. Showtime At The Apollo: The Epic Tale Of Harlem’s TheaterBy Ted Fox & James Otis Smith

Since its inception in 1934, the Apollo has featured and nurtured thousands of entertainers, many of whom have become legends. In this graphic novel—an adaptation of Fox’s definitive, critically acclaimed history of the Apollo—Fox and artist Smith bring to life Harlem’s storied theater, touching on its significance in music history, African American history and the culture of New York City.

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7. When Brooklyn Was QueerBy Hugh Ryan

Most are familiar with Greenwich Village’s queer history (2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots), but Ryan unearths a forgotten world of LGBTQ culture across the East River, from Walt Whitman and other literary figures to the lesbians who worked in the Navy Yard during World War II. Ryan, the founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, recounts both the many characters who made up the once-vibrant community and the systemic forces that sought to erase it.

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8.By Jane Ziegelman

Part history book, part cookbook, this tome chronicles the lives and meals of the residents of one building (now the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). It’s a captivating look at how the city’s immigrant identity and food identity are intertwined—and if it makes you hungry, just try one of the 40 recipes inside.

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9. The Odd Woman And The CityBy Vivian Gornick

Through a series of funny and melancholic essays and anecdotes, Gornick—a pioneering feminist writer and lifelong New Yorker—reminds us that some of the most inspiring moments emerge from chance encounters with strangers on the city’s streets.

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10. The Great BridgeBy David Mccullough

It’s no small task to write about one of the most iconic structures in the world, but McCullough’s exhaustive narrative—covering not only the science and engineering but also the tireless dedication and personal sacrifice of the father and son behind it—more than lives up to its weighty subject matter.

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The Best Fiction Books About New York City

11. Harlem ShuffleBy Colson Whitehead

To his customers and neighbors on 125th street in Harlem, Ray is an upstanding furniture salesman making a decent life for himself and his family. What they don’t know is that Ray descends from a line of crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time. When his cousin falls in with a crowd who plans to rob a hotel, Ray suddenly has a new clientele made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters and other assorted lowlifes. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem.

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12. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953—making Ellison the first Black author to do so—centers on an unnamed man describing growing up in a Black community in the South, attending an all-Black college from which he's expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of a group called The Brotherhood. With meditations of racism, rage and manipulation, there's a reason it's a hallmark of American literature.

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13.Another Country by James Baldwin

Set primarily in Greenwich Village and Harlem in the late ‘50s, Baldwin’s 1962 novel encompasses the downfall of jazz drummer Rufus Scott. He begins a relationship with Leona, a white woman from the South, and introduces her to his friends, including a struggling novelist, his successful mentor and his mentor’s wife. As the relationship becomes more serious, Rufus becomes physically abusive of Leona, and she’s admitted to a mental hospital. Depressed, Rufus returns to Harlem and commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The rest of the book explores the relationships between Rufus' friends, family and acquaintances in the wake of his death, as well as themes that were taboo at the time of its release, including bisexuality, interracial couples and extramarital affairs.

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14. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay by Michael Chabon

This Pulitzer Prize-winner follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, Czech artist Joe Kavalier and Brooklyn-born writer Sammy Clay, before, during, and after World War II. Embarking on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, Kavalier and Clay become major figures in the comics industry as they share the fears, dreams and desires of two teenage boys discovering romance, careers and American possibility in 1940s New York.

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15. Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid Capote’s 1958 novella for this long, you’re missing out. Set in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1943, it follows an unnamed narrator who befriends Holly Golightly, another tenant in the brownstone where he lives. Holly has no job and spends her time socializing with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the under-200-page book is well worth a read—and has a very different ending.

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16. Open City by Teju Cole

On the streets of Manhattan, Julius, a young Nigerian man finishing the last year of a psychiatry residency, wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present and his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who provide insight on his journey, transporting him to Brussels, the Nigeria of his youth and even into his own soul.

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17. City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the 1940s, 19-year-old Vivian has just been kicked out of Vassar College. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her aunt, who owns a crumbling midtown theater. When Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Gilbert’s (Eat, Pray, Love) return to fiction is about discovering that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.

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18. Why We Came To The CityBy Kristopher Jansma

You’ll fall in love from the first line: “We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died.” Heavy, right? For when you want to feel all the feels, pick up this heartrending story about five friends whose lives in NYC don't turn out exactly as they expect.

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19. City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Immerse yourself in NYC circa 1976 in this epic crime thriller—you’ll meet two estranged heirs, two suburban punk teenagers, a magazine reporter and his neighbor, and the detective trying to figure out what they all have to do with a New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park. If you’re a Law & Order buff, we have a feeling you’ll breeze through it.

sarah stiefvater
Sarah Stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...
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