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New York City Travel Guide

10 Books to Read Before You Go to New York City

People say New Yorkers are rude or always in a rush, but the truth is that New York is a city of dreamers. Residents come from near and far, drawn by the electric energy that has characterized the metropolis for generations. From the shores of the rivers to the tops of the skyscrapers, New York is full of stories, true and fictional, that reveal why this big, brash, messy city continues to be such a magnet for both travelers and residents alike. Here are 10 of our favorite reads, classic and contemporary, that capture that seductive, one-of-a-kind energy and help explain what makes New York so beguiling.

1. Here Is New York by E.B. White

The Charlotte’s Web author—and great American essayist—captures a poignant snapshot of New York City in the sweltering summer of 1948 in this iconic essay, presented in charming small-book form. In a stroll throughout Manhattan, he perceptively describes the city’s sounds and sights, the character of its neighborhoods, and the types of people who call the city home. “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky,” White writes on the essay’s first page.

2. My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City

Actors, politicians, models, fashion designers, artists, and writers have one thing in common: They all arrived in New York at some point for the first time, big-eyed and in awe of the city. This collection captures the early anecdotes of well-known personalities from Liza Minnelli to Danny DeVito, and from Ira Glass to David Chang. These funny, candid, and often stumbling tales provide a lens into New York at a distinct moment in time. For more writing from New York magazine and a deeper look at the city it chronicles, check out this collection, featuring stories from four decades of the magazine.

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3. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate

Native New Yorker and renowned personal essayist Phillip Lopate turns his focus to the shoreline of Manhattan in this engaging book. While much writing about the city focuses on its people, buildings, and culture, this book begins with the borders that define Manhattan. The history of New York—such as the construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge—is divulged as Lopate strolls every step of the perimeter of the island.

4. The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

Readers seduced by the romantic entanglements of upper class New Yorkers in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence will appreciate this collection of 20 stories from throughout Wharton’s career. The perceptive reader can chart the development of Wharton’s style, from her first published story to later work. Wharton captures her native city through tales of its drawing rooms, late night soirees, and struggles of the era.

5. Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker

A collection of short fiction from The New Yorker, Wonderful Town includes a range of voices from James Thurber to Maeve Brennan to John Cheever. The setting of these stories is spread from the well-heeled streets of the Upper East Side to downtown Manhattan after dark. The diverse stories are a reminder to the reader of the endless inspiration New York City has provided to writers over generations.

6. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Readers seeking a page-turner with New York City in the background should check out Motherless Brooklyn, a detective novel set in contemporary Brooklyn. The author, born in New York, tells the store of Lionel Essrog, an orphan from Brooklyn with Tourette’s. Lionel gets mixed up with a small-time mobster in this detective story that combines crime-solving with serious social questions.

7. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Published in 1958 in Esquire magazine, this novella features perhaps Truman Capote’s best-known character: Holly Golightly. Set in Manhattan's Upper East Side in the early 1940s, this is the tale of an unemployed society girl who frolics with the city’s wealthy men. The novella served as the inspiration for the 1961 film of the same name, starring Audrey Hepburn.

8. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Readers drawn to the glitzy Jazz Age should pick up The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel that offers a glimpse into the decadent world of the Manhattan elite during this era. Questions of love and money filter throughout this book, all set against a glittering New York backdrop. The novel is believed to be based largely on the relationship of the author and his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.

9. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Irish author and New York resident Column McCann delivers a meticulous portrayal of life in New York City in this award-winning novel. Real events—like a tightrope walker strolling between the Twin Towers in 1974—are juxtaposed with the fictional lives of a variety of intriguing characters. This engrossing story brings together the tales of characters from all points in the social spectrum, all sharing the same city.

10. Mapping Manhattan by Becky Cooper

This book portrays the intimate lives of New Yorkers through maps. The art project originally began with Becky Cooper strolling through Manhattan, meeting native New Yorkers along the way. She asked them to “map their Manhattan” and soon, her mailbox was full of intimate illustrations, depicting former homes and love stories. These maps by everyday New York residents are joined by maps from famous New Yorkers in a beautifully illustrated book that will expose readers to numerous slices of life.

Jessica Colley is a freelance travel and food writer. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley.

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