They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s especially true in NYC, where the confluence of creativity, ambition and minimal personal space means the unusual happens on the reg. These first-person accounts show us a city that’s sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious—but never boring.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Follow the poet laureate of punk and her closest friend Robert Mapplethorpe from the Chelsea Hotel to the back room of Max’s Kansas City to Coney Island—where the impoverished, inseparable pair share a single hot dog—in this celebrated depiction of the bohemian paradise of ’60s and ’70s New York.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
Piri Thomas’s lyrical account of battling racism as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican and the allure of drugs and crime in Depression-era Spanish Harlem was once censored for its severe imagery and language—but is now lauded as a classic of American memoir and the power of self-elevation.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by 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.
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
The self-deprecating humor begins at the title of this book: a nickname from the author’s immigrant mother for not getting into an Ivy League school. (The family also changed his first name to Gary from Igor, because he “had enough problems already.”) It’s a hilarious, touching recollection of the awkwardness of shaping an American identity in his adopted home of Queens and beyond.
Making Rent in Bed-Stuy 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.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
America’s first Latina Supreme Court justice will make you feel all the feels with this intimate account of her rise from poverty in a Bronx housing project to the highest federal court. And lest you expect all legal jargon, know that the book focuses more on her struggles (type 1 diabetes, divorce), triumphs (duh) and people who have inspired and supported her along the way.
The Odd Woman and the City by 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.
Bronx Boy by Jerome Charyn
While working in his local candy store owned by Jewish mobster Meyer Lanksy, the Dostoyevsky-loving Charyn falls in with a youth gang of petty criminals. Despite his unease at having reached such low associations, he recalls his Bronx neighborhood with charm and nostalgia.