New York is a city filled with stories, and nothing screams neon-lit nostalgia quite like a good New York City memoir. If you’re not a New Yorker, reading these will probably make you feel a bit more like you are one—or like you should be.
And if you do live in this marvelous messy city, reading these books will allow you to look at your neighborhood through a different set of eyes. Equal parts gritty, equal parts chic, here are seven memoirs that feel how New York feels.
1. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard
What Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast did for Paris in the 1920s, this charming yet undeceivable memoir does for Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. In 1946, Anatole Broyard was a dapper, earnest, fledgling avant-gardist, intoxicated by books, sex, and the neighborhood that offered both in such abundance. Stylish written, mercurially witty, imbued with insights that are both affectionate and astringent, this memoir offers an indelible portrait of a lost bohemia.
2. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, Joyce Johnson
In 1954, Joyce Johnson’s Barnard professor told his class that most women could never have the kinds of experiences that would be worth writing about. Attitudes like that were not at all unusual at a time when “good” women didn’t leave home or have sex before they married. But secret rebels, like Joyce and her classmate Elise Cowen, refused to accept things as they were. As a teenager, Johnson stole down to Greenwich Village to sing folk songs in Washington Square. She was 21 and had started her first novel when Allen Ginsberg introduced her to Jack Kerouac; nine months later she was with Kerouac when the publication of On the Road made him famous overnight. Joyce had longed to go on the road with him; instead, she got a front seat at a cultural revolution under attack from all sides. It was a woman’s adventure and a fast education in life. What Johnson and other Beat Generation women would discover were the risks, the heartache and the heady excitement of trying to live as freely as the rebels they loved.
3. How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell
From Cat Marnell, “New York’s enfant terrible” (The Telegraph), a candid and darkly humorous memoir of prescription drug addiction and self-sabotage, set in the glamorous world of fashion magazines and downtown nightclubs. This is a tale of self-loathing, self-sabotage, and yes, self-tanner.
4. The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett
Spanning the mid-1970s until just a few days before his death in 1987, The Andy Warhol Diaries is a compendium of the more than twenty thousand pages of the artist’s diary that he dictated daily to Pat Hackett. In it, Warhol gives us the ultimate backstage pass to practically everything that went on in the world both high and low. He hangs out with “everybody”: Jackie O (“thinks she’s so grand she doesn’t even owe it to the public to have another great marriage to somebody big”), Yoko Ono (“We dialed F-U-C-K-Y-O-U and L-O-V-E-Y-O-U to see what happened, we had so much fun”), and “Princess Marina of, I guess, Greece,” along with art-world rock stars Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, and Keith Haring.
5. Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, Rafe Bartholomew
Since it opened in 1854, McSorley’s Old Ale House has been a New York institution. Many of the bar’s traditions remain intact, from the newspaper-covered walls to the plates of cheese and raw onions, the sawdust-strewn floors to the tall-tales told by its bartenders. By turns touching, crude, and wildly funny, Rafe Bartholomew‘s story reveals universal truths about family, loss, and the bursting history of one of New York’s most beloved institutions.
6. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, James Wolcott
From one of our most admired (and feared) cultural critics, a memoir that captures all the gritty, grubby glamor of New York in the awful/wonderful Seventies. In the autumn of 1972, a very young and green James Wolcott arrived in New York from Maryland, full of literary dreams, equipped with a letter of introduction from Norman Mailer, and having no idea what was about to hit him. Landing at a time of accelerating municipal squalor and, paradoxically, gathering cultural energy in all spheres as “Downtown” became a category of art and life unto itself, he embarked upon his sentimental education, seventies New York style. This portrait of a critic as a young man is also a rollicking, acutely observant portrait of a legendary time and place.
7. The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead
Not a memoir in the classic sense, this one is too good to leave out. Colson Whitehead’s style is as multilayered and multifarious as New York itself: Switching from third-person, to first-person, to second-person, he weaves individual voices into a jazzy musical composition that perfectly reflects the way we experience the city. There is a funny, knowing riff on what it feels like to arrive in New York for the first time; a lyrical meditation on how the city is transformed by an unexpected rain shower; and a wry look at the ferocious battle that is commuting. The plaintive notes of the lonely and dispossessed resound in one passage, while another captures those magical moments when the city seems to be talking directly to you, inviting you to become one with its rhythms.