Although the middle of the country is our best hope for the future of American literature, it’s impossible to deny that New York City has inspired some of our greatest writers and books. A few of them, like the ones listed here, do an especially excellent job of summing up the experience of living in this wonderful, crazy, and always-changing city. These 25 books, no matter when they came out, explore themes that will surely resonate with those of us who make our home in the five boroughs, and provide a snapshot of life here for those who don’t.
Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
Forget what you think you know about this classic book, which got turned into an even more classic movie. Rosemary’s Baby’s message is easy for any New Yorker to understand: there is no such thing as the perfect apartment. That massive and inexpensive place you found in that old Gothic Revival building is full of Satanists who want you there because you’re carrying the Antichrist around in your belly.
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Besides the fact that it’s a great book, part of the reason Adler’s classic from the 1970s is seeing a resurgence is the fact that it is a dizzying book that really feels like you’re running around with Jen Fain as she navigates the crazy city.
Open City, Teju Cole
Of the millions of eyes you see while walking down the streets and avenues of Manhattan, how many do you think belong to people who were actually born here? What do you think those people make of what they see while traversing the strangest of big American cities? That’s one of the things you will come away with after reading Cole’s novel. Although it doesn’t all take place in New York, his descriptions and thoughts on the city remain some of the best you’ll ever read.
Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville
A novella, sure. If you want a longer Melville experience, we know a book about a crazy captain chasing a whale that would be better suit your needs. But if you’re looking for one of the greatest Wall Street stories ever, you should probably start here. And please don’t tell us you would prefer not to. We insist!
The Group, Mary McCarthy
Long before Girls and Broad City, Mary McCarthy described the reality college girlfriends face when they move to New York. And although we love those television shows, nobody has been able to do it better since this book.
The Tenants of Moonbloon, Edward Lewis Wallant
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your New York landlord stopped being terrible? That’s sort of the takeaway from Wallant’s overlooked classic.
Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
While most New Yorkers will gladly point out to you that Long Island isn’t part of New York City, there is something to be said about what has been labeled as the sixth borough and its importance to the city’s culture. Sometimes a weekend getaway for Manhattanites, a way to get out of the bubble by just taking a short bus ride, it’s also home to many of the people who commute in to work in the city five days a week. But as Whitehead’s 2009 novel demonstrates, no matter how close you are to the city, once you’re out, you aren’t in Kansas — er, Manhattan — anymore.
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
Brooklyn wasn’t always the place that everybody was clamoring to get into. Borough native Lethem would probably know all about that, and it’s the reason why of all his book’s about his hometown, this might stand out as the most New Yorker of all of them.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Spend a moment thinking about how similar New York circa 2014 is to the Gilded Age in which Wharton’s best-known novel is set, and suddenly this great book becomes even more relevant. Not only is it a perfect book, but it’s a window into another period in the city’s history when there was a massive gap between the rich and the poor.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman
Very few writers have been brave enough to aim a critical eye at contemporary Brooklyn. Even fewer have the guts to write about other writers living in the borough. That’s part of what made Waldman’s debut so compelling. The great writing was the other part.
Dancer From the Dance, Andrew Holleran
Andrew Holleran’s indelible novel about gay nightlife in the ’60s and ’70s sheds light on the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS experiences of gay men in New York City, featuring larger-than-life characters and gorgeous prose. —Tyler Coates
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
You’re always hearing stories about people picking up and just leaving wherever they are, only to resurface in New York City as some new person. Capote turned that scenario into an unforgettable classic.
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
You could call this William Styron’s Holocaust novel. And while the titular choice is a heartbreaking moment set within the gates of Auschwitz, it is merely the story within the story that is Styron’s best novel. It’s easy to forget that Sophie’s Choice is as much about Stingo (who is clearly Styron’s literary alter ego), an aspiring Southern writer who finds himself amid the Jewish population in Flatbush, Brooklyn in the years following World War II. —Tyler Coates
A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
You move to New York with one set of dreams, but usually reality takes over. Egan proved she understands this better than most writers with this Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award winner.
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
Kushner took everything that was raw and wonderful about mid-1970s lower Manhattan and boiled it down into this novel that had plenty of readers thinking about New York “back in the day.” A year later, it’s already a modern classic.
Lush Life, Richard Price
People like to talk about how safe New York City has supposedly become, but Price’s novel revealed the city’s gritty and dangerous side in a way few books have done in the post-9/11 era.
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Paule Marshall
It took over 25 years to achieve the recognition it deserved, but Marshall’s tale of Barbadian immigrants adapting to Brooklyn during the Great Depression and Second World War is one of the greatest American immigrant novels, and particularly one of the greatest books about immigrants in New York.
Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West
You live in New York and work a job that’s really sorta depressing. Obviously there’s more to West’s brilliant novella than that, but dealing with a lot of sad people and their issues on a day-to-day basis is something a lot of us can relate to.
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
All the city’s decadence, glamor, and wealth is turned on its head and then slaughtered before our very eyes — with a chainsaw — by the infamous Patrick Bateman.
Another Country, James Baldwin
While his most well-known work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, does resemble parts of Baldwin’s own childhood in Harlem, Another Country, his intimate portrait of the loves and lives of people in Greenwich Village, was as scandalous upon release as it was (and still remains) another example of Baldwin’s brilliance.
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
It’s weird to say, but your 30s are a unique time in the life of a New Yorker: it isn’t the hard-partying 20s or the more settled 40s. It’s this strange period that Messud effortlessly captures with masterful precision.
Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), Eileen Myles
The title of this book by one of our finest contemporary poets suggests that it’s fiction, but it’s hard to believe that some of the stories in this Portrait of an Artist as a Person Trying to Get By in New York weren’t firsthand experiences: “I felt like I was in some tremendous vat and kept falling and falling, but that was life, wasn’t it.”
Yes it was, and yes it is.
Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo
New Yorkers love to talk about the way things used to be. In Don DeLillo’s third novel, rock star Bucky Wunderlick shows us a once-forgotten stretch of Manhattan, off of Broadway, that no one who doesn’t earn in the high six figures could afford to occupy today.
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
The novel that convinced more than a few high schoolers to move to New York for a writing career that would surely involve a little heartbreak and a whole lot of cocaine.
The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I bet you thought I’d put Gatsby here. And yeah, that’s a great New York book in so many ways. Yet The Beautiful and Damned is a book written by an outsider who let the city take him over. Gatsby is his American novel, but this is without a doubt his New York one.