Classic Big Apple Books To Revisit This Summer


An immigration lawyer by day, the protagonist of Colin Harrison’s ripping new thriller, You Belong to Me (Sarah Crichton, $27), has a peculiar metropolitan hobby: He collects old maps of New York. It’s an obsession his creator shares. “Honestly, I have too many of them,” says Harrison. It’s the writer’s attention to the particulars of New York City grit and geography that have marked his work over eight Gotham-set page-turners. As the editor-in-chief at Scribner, Harrison knows books, and a rabid curiosity about the city around him is reflected in this five-title primer on New York–centric literature, which name-checks some classics but also includes an entry or two that no one else would think to include on such a list. “For a writer, the city is just impossibly rich,” he says. “But that’s a great place to be as a writer.”

BUtterfield 8, by John O’Hara (1935)

“There have been a lot of great New York City novels, but the one I would mention first is BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara. It’s a portrait of a desperate young woman, kind of a grifter, and what she has to do to survive during the speakeasy age. O’Hara was a young writer just arriving on the scene, and he wrote this fabulous, sharply observed New York City novel that’s largely forgotten but still feels fresh today.”

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, by Luc Sante (1991)

“Luc Sante’s nonfiction book is a brilliant history of low life in the city. It was much celebrated when it came out and should still be, because it’s really a classic — valuable for anybody who wants to write books, wants to write novels, wants to know about New York City. I used a passage from it as an epigraph in Manhattan Nocturne.”

Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (1979)

“A book most people don’t necessarily think of as a New York City novel — but actually, a lot of the story happens in New York. The narrator, Stingo, is a lonely young man who moves to Brooklyn and encounters Sophie and her lover Nathan, and then their whole Nazi Germany story unspools. But it’s got a great New York City frame around it, and part of the pleasure of the book is seeing his rendering of the city at the time.”

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Gatsby’s a New York novel, of course, arguably the greatest. One can go back to it every couple of years and see and hear something new.”

The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe (1987)

“New York City is a great leviathan, a place you get addicted to. To capture the totality of New York, high and low, the way Dickens did for Victorian London, is almost impossible. Tom Wolfe certainly tried with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and that attempt was grand and huge, with huge piles of fabulous language. It’s worth going back to see how he did it. Thirty years later, it’s still instructive about all the pressures in the city and on the people who live here.”