Finding a book about New York City is…well, it’s whatever the opposite of “finding a needle in a haystack” is. It’s one of the most written-about places in the world, and new novels and nonfiction are coming out faster than anyone can read it. Trying to compile a list of the best books about New York City is a fool’s errand.
And yet, we’ll try it anyway. While far from comprehensive, we chose 10 books that give you different ways of looking at and thinking about New York. In a city of over 8 million people, there are countless stories to be told.
Nonfiction Books About New York City
For The City Romantic: Here Is New York By E.B. White
Countless writers have attempted to capture the soul of the city, but it’s hard to do it better than E.B. White. In Here is New York, White guides the reader around Manhattan with wit and charm. Despite being less than 60 pages and over 70 years old, the book still inspires people from all over the world to visit and explore the city. It’s not a travelogue or a history of the city by any means; White instead focuses on the spirit that runs through New York. Perhaps its most famous passage is the one where White divides New Yorkers into three types: those who are born there, those who commute there and those who move there later in life. He gives special attention to this third group, and so it’s no surprise that year after year, people move to this city with this book tucked under one of their arms.
For The Off-The-Beaten-Track Tourist: A People’s Guide To New York City By Carolina Bank Muñoz, Penny Lewis And Emily Tumpson Molina
The travel section of a bookstore will have any number of guides to New York City, each of which covers the most touristy parts of the city: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Times Square, the World Trade Center and on and on. There’s much more to the city than that, however, and A People’s Guide to New York City will take you through the complex, diverse history of the entire city (not just Manhattan). The book doesn’t shy away from the battles over slavery, labor rights and women’s suffrage that shaped the city you see today.
For The History Buff: The Power Broker By Robert Caro
When we say The Power Broker is for a history buff, we’re not joking. At around 1,000 pages, this biography of Robert Moses is one of those books that becomes a status symbol based sheerly on the amount of time it takes to get through. Don’t let the length scare you, however — it’s anything but a slog. The book explores Moses, a man who, despite never holding elected office, had a huge role in shaping New York City during the 20th century. After you read the book, you’ll never be able to travel around the city without seeing how Moses’ choices turned it into a haven for cars. Caro’s writing also turns even the boring specifics of city planning into a gripping thriller.
For The Artists And Punks: St. Marks Is Dead By Ada Calhoun
If there’s one consistent thing about New York City, it’s that it’s always changing. In St. Marks is Dead, Ada Calhoun focuses on one small section of the East Village in Manhattan to explore how the city evolves. St. Marks was a major hub of counterculture in the city throughout the 20th century, being home to anarchists, musicians, visual artists and more. And as the title suggests, every time an era of St. Marks ends, people declare that it’s “dead.” Calhoun’s outlook is optimistic, however. While the people and venues that defined St. Marks have shifted, that doesn’t mean its spiritual center has died. Instead, it’s in a constant process of renewal. While some may have nostalgia for a St. Marks where we could walk down the street and see Jean-Michel Basquiat or the Velvet Underground, the city has to keep reinventing itself to stay alive.
For The Foodie: Gastropolis Edited By Annie Hauck-Lawson And Jonathan Deutsch
The most important decision you can make during a visit to New York City is figuring out where to eat. The city is home to people from all over the world, each of whom brought their own culinary traditions with them. Gastropolis won’t tell you exactly which restaurants to visit, but the collection of essays will definitely inspire your interest in the vast offerings of the city, from upscale restaurants in Midtown Manhattan to food peddlers that can be found all around the city. It will also explore the ways in which food is clearly more than ingredients prepared: food is culture, food is history, food is politics, food is everything.
Fiction Books About New York City
For The Classicists: The Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton is one of the most iconic chroniclers of late 19th and early 20th century New York City to have ever lived. The Age of Innocence is one of several New York novels she wrote, often accompanied by The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country. The book is set in the 1870s and is about a lawyer set to marry one woman, but whose life path is knocked off course when he falls for someone else. It harkens back to a very different time of social mores and romantic love in the United States, but her writing’s influence can still be seen in novels published today.
For The Young At Heart: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn By Betty Smith
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, today is one of the centers of gentrification and wealth in the city, but it hasn’t always been that way. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn brings the reader back to the early 20th century and follows the coming-of-age of Francie Nolan. It’s a bittersweet upbringing, with moments of joy found amid a family’s constant struggle with poverty and alcoholism. The author, Betty Smith, drew on her own experience of growing up in Brooklyn, infusing this book with life. It was also turned into a very good movie in 1945.
For The Fantasy Fan: The City We Became By N.K. Jemisin
There are countless jokes about New York City being a character in novels and TV shows, but The City We Became takes that idea literally. Written by one of the best sci-fi and fantasy authors writing today, this novel is set in a universe where cities become literally sentient. The “avatars” of the five boroughs of the city — Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island — join together to fight an ambiguous, shape-shifting Enemy. While the idea can sound a bit fanciful, it’s a fascinating way to explore the character of the various boroughs. This book is the first in a projected series of books that will explore other cities through human avatars.
For The Literary Fiction Reader: Behold The Dreamers By Imbolo Mbue
New York City has for a long time been the center of the American Dream: the idea that anyone, anywhere can move to the United States and become successful. It’s not controversial to say, however, that the American Dream is not a reality for everyone. In her debut novel Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue explores this idea by following two families: the Edwards, a wealthy American family whose patriarch works in finance, and the Jongas, a Cameroonian family whose patriarch moves to New York City to become the Edwards’ chauffeur and send money home to them. When the 2008 financial crisis hits, the instability of the situation affects both families, though not equally.
For The Lover Of Epics: New York By Edward Rutherfurd
Curious about the history of New York City but find conventional nonfiction books a little dry? New York may be the perfect book for you, then. It’s a novel told from a number of different perspectives, roughly tracing the paths of seven families as their fortunes rise and fall with that of New York City, covering hundreds of years of history. While it’s impossible to put the whole history of a city between the covers of a book, New York may be the closest we’ll get, crafting a fictional narrative that coincides with the biggest ideas and events of New York City from its Indian fishing village origins through to the 21st century.