Here’s a roundup of our 10 favorite non-fiction books about New York City. Ranging from memoirs to guidebooks, we should have a selection that fits every kind of reading experience that you’d ever want!
The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher
The Works is an urban planning “Bible” that is also extremely accessible and beautifully illustrated. We source Kate Ascher on many of our Cities 101 pieces, as the book is a great reference for finding out how the different parts of the city come together. This illustrated book clearly explains many complex urban processes, such as harbor dredging, traffic lights, and water tanks.
Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate
The concept of the book is simple: essayist Phillip Lopate takes readers on a tour of Manhattan’s perimeter, writing about the places that he passes. As such, Waterfront bends many genres: marketed as a non-academic nonfiction book, it is sometimes a guidebook, occasionally a memoir, but also very academically detailed in some parts. If you are looking to gain a lot of city knowledge from a lifelong New Yorker, Waterfront is the book for you!
Untapped Founder Michelle Young calls Secret New York “one of the best guides to the city that I’ve ever read.” Secret is unlike other guidebooks in that it purposely does not include any typical tourist attractions. Instead, Secret specializes in the “Untapped” locations of New York. Many places that we’ve written on, like the Marine Air Terminal and Ganesha Temple, are included in the book by T.M. Rives.
Becky Cooper started Mapping Manhattan as a project during the summer of 2009, during which she handed out cards with outline maps of Manhattan to passersby, asking them to “map their memories” however they wished. The outcome is a collection of colorful, charming, and quirky renderings of the island. Some of the book’s best maps are those submitted by celebrities, including Yoko Ono, Malcolm Gladwell, and Matt Green.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith, who rose to fame as a punk rocker in the 1970’s, released this memoir in 2010. Just Kids, which discusses her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during young adulthood, was a New York Times Bestseller and won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. What caused the book’s success was likely its emotional and personal story of friendship, combined with the truthful depiction of New York City in an era that is all too easily glossed over or forgotten. (To prepare yourself for the book, read our guide that traces Smith’s trail in NYC.)
Newtown Creek: A Photographic Survey of New York’s Industrial Waterway by Anthony Hamboussi
Photographer Anthony Hamboussi has done the impossible: he’s found beauty and visual treasures in one of the most polluted waterways in the nation. Hamboussi’s book of over two hundred photos (that took five years to collect) captures some wonderful moments and scenes. The images usually contain no humans but often feature vibrantly green flora of some sort–a sharp addition to the otherwise bleak color palate.
Journalist and acclaimed nature writer Robert Sullivan chose New York City’s rats because, as a native New Yorker, he explains that he sees rats as our “mirror species.” They live wherever humans live and “have conquered every continent that humans have conquered.” Furthermore, Rats is actually an analysis of New York itself, merely using the unappealing creatures as a lens to tell the fascinating history of the city.
Change happens so quickly in New York City, and as a result, many buildings are easily forgotten. With Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville, writer David Freeland sought to resurrect stories of places of leisure and nighttime enjoyment. “These are the places,” he writes, “that most often disappear after their economic usefulness runs out.” To counteract the injustices suffered by those that were behind each of these places (not to mention all of the good memories they sparked), Freeland immortalized them in his seminal book on the fun side of New York history.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Perhaps the best known book on this list, McBride’s memoir The Color of Water is only partially set in New York City. However, it is arguably the best modern rags-to-riches, dream-realization story that New York is known for. McBride writes about his childhood growing up in the Red Hook housing projects with a devout Christian mother (who was very secretive about her own childhood), an African American father, and many siblings and step-siblings. His memoir examining of race, faith, perseverance, and family is perfectly complemented by the New York setting.
I LEGO N.Y. by Christoph Niemann
Although not exactly non-fiction (or fiction either), we couldn’t resist including Christoph Niemann’s book of photos that feature legos representing something from the streets of New York. These teensy, minimalist art pieces are amusing to no end. Some of our favorites? Two L-shaped blocks pressed together to form “Donald Trump’s Hair.” A mass of 2×1 colored blocks approaching a white arch: “The Holland Tunnel.” A single green 1×1 block: “Wasabi.”
What would you add to a follow-up list of favorite NYC books? Contact us!
Get in touch with the author @YiinYangYale.