50 essential books about New York City
Curbed editors and NYC experts picked their favorites
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There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books about New York City—broad overviews of its history, deep dives into topics like gentrification or architecture, novels that capture a particular moment in time, the list goes on. And in coming up with this list, which narrows that vast assemblage down to just 50 essential books, our goal was simple: to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to understand how New York became, well, New York.
We tasked our editors with choosing the books no New York bookshelf should be without—the ones that have informed their understanding of the city’s past, present, and future. We also asked city experts—architects, critics, authors, and urbanists among them—to give their recommendations. The resulting list is not comprehensive, but it is diverse, with fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, and more represented. We hope you enjoy—and if your favorite is not on the list, chime in with your picks in the comments.
And one thing to note: We’ve linked to Amazon here for convenience’s sake, but we of course recommend seeking these out at one of New York City’s amazing independent bookstores: the Strand, Three Lives & Company, Greenlight, Community Bookstore, Word, Book Culture… we could go on, but you get the idea.
For history nerds
1. The Encyclopedia of New York City edited by Kenneth T. Jackson
The title is self-explanatory: This massive tome is a truly comprehensive reference guide to everything you need to know about New York City, from Berenice Abbott to Louis Zukofsky—literally.
2. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
“What a gift. That is what I thought after I read Up in The Old Hotel. Not just a gift to me, but to the history of New York City. The way Joseph Mitchell writes is batshit wonderful, funny, spare, and kind. Mitchell’s New York has cash registers made of soup bowls, makeshift bludgeons of rolled up magazines, and above all characters. The details he shares could easily have been lost forever, instead, they are here for all time to transport and make any New Yorker’s heart swell.” —Tamara Shopsin, illustrator, line cook, and author of Arbitrary Stupid Goal
3. A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts
Building off a New York Times feature that solicited reader input on the tchotchkes that best represent New York, Roberts’s 2014 book is a compact, yet thorough, history of the greatest city in the world. The objects featured are wonderfully diverse—oysters, subway tokens, the Domino Sugar Refinery sign, and the bagel all make appearances—and the stories are compulsively readable. It’s proof that you don’t need to read a dense, 1,000-page book to get a sense of what makes a city a city.
4. The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York by Greg Young and Tom Meyers
“One of the running themes of this book is not just about the history of New York but how New Yorkers looked at their own history throughout history.”—Young, in an interview with the authors on Curbed NY
5. The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto
“New Yorkers tend to think the city sprang fully formed out of the past, a triumph of development by British colonists, but the Dutch were here for over a century before the English gave them the book. Shorto’s book paints a vivid picture of a colony on the tip of Manhattan far more vibrant than most history textbooks allow and provides a glimpse into the origins of a Europeanized New York often glossed over.” —Ben Kabak, blogger, Second Ave Sagas
6. New York City Transit Authority: Objects by Brian Kelley
From the team that brought you the reissue of the NYCTA Standards Manual comes this compendium of subway ephemera, painstakingly collected and catalogued by photographer Brian Kelley. Taken as a whole, the items in the book—everything from old token to NYCTA uniforms to pamphlets distributed to tourists—amount to a stunning visual archive of New York’s transit history.
7. The Other Islands of New York City by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller
“It first came out in 1996, and is still one of the best introductions to the geography, ecology, and history of the city’s waterfront. It’s both a practical guide and a great piece of writing, and it definitely helped to inspire my own fascination with the city’s coast.” —Nathan Kensinger, photographer and Curbed NY columnist
8. The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook by Sally Ingber and Roy Finamore
One of New York’s most iconic restaurants demands a big book packed with photography, recipes and history. That’s exactly what you get here, with photographs—from the gorgeous Guastavino vaulting to dishes like the Oyster Pan Roast—alongside more than 100 classic recipes, some of which date back to the Oyster Bar’s opening in 1913. Behind-the-scenes stories and historical anecdotes also reveal how this space has remained sacred to New Yorkers for over 100 years.
9. Gotham by Mike Wallace
“While it only covered the period up to 1898 (in 1,424 pages), I found the themes—especially about the cyclical nature of the city—to be timeless and applied them in my time as Deputy Mayor. I’m excited for the next volume, which just came out—17 years after the first!” —Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs and author of Greater Than Ever
10. Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace
“The monumental sequel to the monumental Gotham covers just 21 years, from the consolidation of New York and Brooklyn to 1919—but what years they were! You might think that doing justice to that period of gilt and misery in more than 1,000 pages might get tedious, but this is a made-for-Netflix epic.” —Justin Davidson, New York magazine architecture critic and author of Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York
For NYC newbies
11. The Power Broker by Robert Caro
“My favorite book about NYC is The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It’s a fascinating portrait of Robert Moses, who was a visionary city planner, but also extremely short-sighted and completely awful in many, many ways. It’s also about power and how it is amassed. And, of course, it’s about NYC—how and why it looks the way it does today.” —Roz Chast, New Yorker cartoonist and author of Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York
12. The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich
Native New Yorker and City College professor Helmreich wrote the ultimate walking guide to the city by, well, walking; he covered 816 miles in his quest to chronicle the fascinating minutiae of New York’s many neighborhoods. And fans, take note: Helmreich plans to cover all five boroughs in separate volumes, with Brooklyn having come out in 2016, and Manhattan due next year.
13. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
“Apart from being astute and full of implications about human nature as well as urban planning, her analysis evokes the city like almost no other book—in part because Jacobs conjures up not just the New York of a particular era but the vital something that is constant, that accounts for so much of the city’s pull, generation after generation. This, I said over and over again as I read the book for the first time: This is what I love about New York.” —Adelle Waldman, author, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P
14. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Punk-poet legend Patti Smith chronicles her early years in the New York of the 1960s and ’70s in this 2010 memoir. Funny, eloquent and wise, Just Kids is an elegiac ode to her friend, collaborator and sometimes lover, the late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose rise as a photographer was intertwined with Smith’s own ascendancy in the New York punk scene. It’s also a love letter to the city of the era, as Smith’s exploits take her from Scribner’s Book Store to the Chelsea Hotel to Coney Island to the sweaty heart of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s.
15. Here Is New York by E.B. White
E.B. White took a stroll through Manhattan and wrote one of the most quintessential love letters to New York. The accomplished essayist and children’s-book author pays perfect tribute to midcentury NYC in an essay that still rings true today. He awes over the implausible mess of infrastructure and humanity, and offers astute observations like this: “New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience—if they did they would live elsewhere.”
16. Forgotten New York by Kevin Walsh
“Walsh’s book came out right around the time I was moving to NYC, and I used it as a sort of field guide to looking for bits of history around various NYC neighborhoods. By pointing out buildings, lesser known landmarks and remnants of early NYC, Walsh gives the reader a new way to see every day things we walk past on the way to the subway. He teaches people how to engage with their environment, and ultimately appreciate it more, even the ugly parts.” —Julia Wertz, author, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City
17. The Works by Kate Ascher
“You don’t have to be an infrastructure geek to love this illustrated guide to everything we take for granted—what our water, electricity, garbage collection, transit systems and more actually look like beneath the surface, and how they actually work. A little dated, coming out in 2005, but most of our deep infrastructure is still what it was and you’ll never look at the city the same way again.” —Brian Lehrer, host, The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC
For architecture buffs
18. The AIA Guide to New York City by Norval White and Elliot Willensky
Come for the in-depth descriptions of every major New York building, stay for the bitchy commentary about the ones the authors didn’t like all that much. (See: calling Richard Meier’s One Prospect Park “a massive beached whale,” among other bon mot.) First published 50 years ago, the most recent edition was released in 2010—and we’re eagerly awaiting the next one.
19. Never Built New York by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell
What would New York have become if an airport anchored the southern tip of Manhattan, or if an enormous I.M. Pei-designed supertall loomed over Midtown? We’ll never know, but Goldin and Lubell’s hulking 2016 book lets us imagine. The duo chronicles dozens of fascinating unrealized architectural schemes for the five boroughs, and while some may make you thankful for the city we have—Raymond Hood’s “skyscraper bridge” may have been a bit much—others will have you wondering what could have been.
20. Magnetic City by Justin Davidson
“Whether people are visiting New York for the first time, or have only ever seen it on TV, or have lived here their whole lives, I would like people to be able to stand on a given street corner or walk down a block and have a sense of why it is the way it is. Everything has a history, and you can see that history embedded almost like a fossil or a series of archeological layers in the city that you’re seeing in front of you.”—from an interview with the author on Curbed NY
21. The Great Bridge by David McCullough
This is a monumental book for a monumental bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge—viewed as the greatest engineering feat of mankind when it opened in 1883—was the result of a toiling (some might say cursed) family, who fought off competitors and corrupt politicians to beat the laws of nature and provide an essential connection between Manhattan and Brooklyn. David McCullough’s 500-plus page book takes you through every detail, making this an indispensable resource for New York history and architecture buffs.
22. Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas
“One of the most original approaches to thinking about the role of “fantastic” architecture in the growth of New York City. It changed how I understand the city.” —David Rockwell, founder and president, Rockwell Group
23. An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn by Francis Morrone
Brooklyn has emerged as a cultural destination, but it’s worth celebrating what attracted many to the borough before it exploded in popularity: its charming residential architecture. Morrone’s guidebook details the row houses, churches and various historic structures in northern and central Brooklyn, which includes the borough’s iconic “brownstone belt.” The story of Brooklyn’s buildings is also one of brilliant, quirky, and sometimes corrupt architects and developers, which lends the book added color.
24. Christadora by Tim Murphy
“As an architect, I believe that architecture can profoundly impact people’s lives. Tim Murphy has made architecture a character in his book, describing the way the city is an architectural landscape of stories, memories and cultural history.” —Rick Cook, founding partner, COOKFOX
For your book club
25. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Before The Group or The Bell Jar—or even Sex and the City—there was Rona Jaffe’s novel about a group of young women living, loving, and working in New York City. Its plot twists (abortion, stalking, and pre-marital sex among them) seemed shocking at the time, but influenced generations of New York women.
26. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Though many people are on more familiar terms with Blake Edwards’s iconic film adaptation, it’s worth reading the crystalline prose of Truman Capote’s original 1958 novella. Set in the 1940s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s limns both the glamour and the darkness of Holly Golightly’s life as a society darling/borderline prostitute on the Upper East Side—and the unnamed narrator who’s fascinated and repelled by her. Perhaps no author has better encapsulated the sense of New York as a place of personal reinvention, for better and worse.
27. The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan
“One of my favorite New York books is The Long-Winded Lady, a collection of short essays written mostly in the 1960s by Maeve Brennan for The New Yorker magazine’s Talk of the Town. Brennan observes the city and its ordinary people on the streets of the Village and Times Square, from tables in bars and restaurants, and in the lobbies of budget hotels. Her essays are filled with compassion and connection, mixed with the anonymity of city life.” —Jeremiah Moss, blogger and author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul
28. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clayby Michael Chabon
The history of comic books is irrevocably intertwined with the history of New York City. In his 2000 Pulitzer-winning novel, Michael Chabon tells the story of two Jewish kids—one from Brooklyn, one a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague—who dream up a Superman-esque hero and rise to fame during the Golden Age of comics. The city is as much a character as Sammy, Joe, and their creation: a loud, delirious dreamscape brimming with menace and possibility.
29. The Group by Mary McCarthy
“In her blockbuster 1963 novel The Group, Mary McCarthy writes about a cohort of young women making their way in the big city upon graduating from Vassar. The book is so frank—about sex, power, and the profound misogyny of American life in the 1930s—that it caused a terrific scandal. This obscures McCarthy’s achievement; The Group is not salacious or gossipy, but a brilliant American work of art. It is one of my favorite novels, full stop, but it is also one of my favorite fictional depictions of the city I call home.” —Rumaan Alam, author, Rich and Pretty
30. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
There’s something timeless about Motherless Brooklyn, the jittery 1999 noir novel by Boerum Hill-raised author Jonathan Lethem. Part hard-boiled detective caper and part gentle character study, the story follows the travails of Lionel Essrog, a would-be detective with a vividly realized case of Tourette’s syndrome. There’s a pervasive sense of motion and complexity as Lionel ping-pongs through Brooklyn’s mob scene in pursuit of a murderer—or as one character puts it, “wheels within wheels.”
31. So Little Time by John Marquand
“This novel was published in the 1940s and depicts the city just before World War II, when the tail end of the Jazz age, the remnants of 1930’s style, the growing sense of modernity and the ominous possibility of it all disappearing in war came together. There is a beautiful passage when the main character’s son, home from Harvard, takes a walk in Rockefeller Center and thinks about New York, and went something like: ‘Jim thought everything was in New York. It made you know what people wanted and what they dreamed.…’” —Paul Goldberger, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
32. The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick
Any New Yorker with a good cobbler will tell you that the city is best experienced on foot—treading its streets and avenues and being open to surprising encounters. A pedestrian’s-eye-view is the vantage point of Vivian Gornick’s slim 2015 memoir about her decades in the city, filled with vivid descriptions of encounters with dear friends and dearer strangers. “Most people are in New York because they need evidence—in large quantities—of human expressiveness; and they need it not now and then, but every day,” she writes.
33. Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit
“You know, even if we did a thousand maps, that’s still not an adequate description of New York. Even eight million maps is not. Every city is infinite, infinite piled upon infinite… But multiple maps can at least begin to indicate that richness.” —from an interview with the author on Curbed NY
34. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
“A fantastic book for anyone trying to imagine how climate change and rising waters will affect cities and New York in particular. Robinson is an outstanding writer who mixes theory and science fiction. The book is a beautiful telling of New York as Venice, tracing everyday lives of its ordinary heroes and celebrating not only the resilience of cities but more importantly the resilience of urban life in cities.” —Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; co-founder, WORKac
35. Open City by Teju Cole
“Teju Cole captures the vibrancy of the city from the viewpoint of the flaneur—the stroller. One of my favorite quotes in the book is about our neighborhoods: ‘Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.’” —Mark Gardner, principal, Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects
36. A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin
“A beautifully written memoir of Kazin growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1920’s. He talks about his walks out of Brownsville to the ‘city” and reflects on his connection/disconnection to the world. It’s as much a memoir of Kazin as it is of Brownsville and New York City as a whole.” —Nadine Maleh, executive director, Institute for Public Architecture
37. Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
“The legendary New York City Department of Transportation head tells the stories behind some of the celebrated—and extremely controversial—urban planning decisions that remade the city for people, block-by-block. New York’s plaza conversions, parklets, and expanding bike network have since been emulated round the world.”—from Curbed.com’s 101 books about where and how we live
38. Low Life by Luc Sante
Much has been said about how New York has lost its grit. To delve into the dark underbelly of the city, look no further than Luc Sante’s landmark tome. Theaters and saloons, opium and cocaine dens, gambling and prostitution—it’s all there, alongside a look at why law enforcement failed to rein it in. Focusing on the period between 1840 and 1919, it’ll take you to a now-unrecognizable New York, pre-Tenement Act, inside the city’s overcrowded slums and teeming streets.
39. The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead
“Through reworking figures of speech, slogans, and clichés about life in New York City, Colson Whitehead draws and reframes the familiar in a play between hilarity and insight. We tour a vision of New York from the last quarter of the 20th century where the dynamics of gentrification seem less present than decay—a disappearing New York.” —Yolande Daniels, founding partner, studioSUMO
40. Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James T. Murphy and Karla L. Murphy
“Beyond the quaint graphics, hand-made signs, and charming staff, independent storefronts gives us a connection to our shared history, serving as physical representations of the immigrant struggle to gain a foothold. This rich visual survey of mom-and-pop New York, filled with large format photos, shows why these corner spots are vital to our city’s character.” —from Curbed.com’s 101 books about where and how we live
41. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul by Jeremiah Moss
“We all have our own lost city. If we stick around long enough, we lose the city of our youth, our dreams, and foiled ambitions. But this book isn’t about how we all lose our personal city. It’s about how the city has been taken from us. It’s not just the story of a death; it’s the story of a murder.”—from an interview with the author on Curbed NY
42. Another Country by James Baldwin
“For the ways it explored race, sexuality, and class, this was a groundbreaking book for a number of reasons. But Baldwin’s lush language evokes New York City (and 1950s Greenwich Village, specifically) in a way few other works of art have accomplished. Baldwin also gets light very right in this book: the dimness of a bar, the glare of a streetlamp, the way light erupts from an open door out into a dark street. It’s subtle and powerful.” —Asad Syrkett, senior editor, Curbed
43. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” announced Howard Cosell during the 1977 World Series, and thrust the crime wave eviscerating New York City’s northernmost borough into the international spotlight. Mahler’s book skillfully intertwines the year’s two most riveting battles—a pennant race and a mayoral race—that ended up shaping the city’s future. —from Curbed.com’s 101 books about where and how we live
For city kids
44. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
In Betty Smith’s coming-of-age novel—based on the author’s own childhood in Brooklyn—a pre-hipster Williamsburg is as much of a finely rendered character as Francie Nolan, the bookish protagonist around whom the story revolves.
45. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
The 1960s was a particularly rich era for stories of precocious kids navigating Gotham. One of the genre’s canniest heroines is Harriet M. Welsch, who in Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 children’s novel is an Upper East Side 11-year-old who spends her days cheerfully “spying” on her friends and neighbors. The curious, inquisitive (maybe too inquisitive) Harriet is the perfect avatar for every city dweller who’s fascinated by the passing lives of others.
46. Stuart Little by E.B. White
This iconic children’s book-turned-film is a realistic fantasy that chronicles the adventures of Stuart Little, who is born to human parents in New York City but happened to look “very much like a rat/mouse in every way.″ Though he’s shy, city adventures abound, revolving around Stuart’s participation in a model sailboat race in Central Park.
47. Playground of My Mind by Julia Jacquette
“In this large-format book, artist Julia Jacquette illustrates her childhood memories of New York’s modernist playgrounds, visually connecting their pyramids, watercourses, and climbing cubes to the architecture of everyone and everything from LEGO and Aldo Van Eyck. Jacquette makes great use of the real estate of the page to make connections between the toy and the city, and the pictures are likely to trigger memories of play on long-demolished playgrounds for children of the 1970s and 1980s.” —Alexandra Lange, Curbed architecture critic
48. Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight
Who didn’t want to be Eloise when they were a kid? The antics of the clever, pleasure-seeking six-year-old who lives in the Plaza Hotel were brought to vivid life by nightclub singer Kay Thompson—who actually did live in the Plaza—and illustrator Hilary Knight in a series of books that began in 1955. You don’t have to be a child yourself to revel vicariously in Eloise’s adventures through the gilded heart of Manhattan; we all know what it’s like to have so much to do that you get a sort of headache around the sides.
49. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Sure, there’s a heady element of time travel in Rebecca Stead’s 2009 Newbery winner, about brainy middle schooler Miranda trying to puzzle out a seemingly impossible mystery. But it’s firmly grounded in the Manhattan of the late ’70s, vividly and entertainingly re-created with memories from Stead’s own Upper West Side childhood. It’s as much a memory novel as it is a kids’ thriller, bringing to detailed life a few city blocks that, to the eyes of a sixth grader, can seem infinite.
50. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Any New Yorker worth their salt knows that if you’re going to run away from home, there’s no better place to land than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The setting is a major part of what has made E.L. Konigsburg’s 1967 children’s mystery an enduring classic, and From the Mixed-Up Files continues to inspire generations of kids to take more than a passing interest in museums and art history—even if they don’t get to splash around in the fountain.