15+ Books That Capture the Magic and History of New York City

Books about NYC New York City History

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New York City is a special place. Home to millions, this energetic city also captures the fancies of tourists who fly thousands of miles to see the famous skyline. Art, literature, history—New York City has it all. The metropolis has a 400-year history and a present-day population of about eight and a half million people across its five boroughs. These years and lives represent countless American stories. There is no singular New York story. One way to explore the many facets of this complicated, fabled city is through books. Scroll down to peruse our list of some of the best books featuring the Big Apple as an integral component.

 

Read on for our curated list of books featuring the people, history, and magic of New York City.

 

A History of New York in 101 Objects

history of nyc in 101 objects

Bookshop | $22

Visual learners will love this compendium of objects known to New Yorkers throughout history. By Sam Roberts of The New York Times, A History of New York in 101 Objects includes everything from the bagel to the old-fashioned Automat vending machine.

 

The Island at the Center of the World

The Island at the Center of the World

Bookshop | $17.43

Drawing from thousands of pages of 17th-century Dutch sources, Russell Shorto tells a story rather unfamiliar to most Americans—that of the early Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Names such as “Stuyvesant” still linger on the institutions and streets of modern New York, and this account of colonial New Amsterdam's earliest days will likely teach even life-long city dwellers a thing or two.

 

Just Kids

Just Kids

Bookshop | $15.63

In the 1960s and 1970s, lower Manhattan was the province of artists. This autobiography by punk rock singer Patti Smith melds art, music, and poetry to provide insight into the community of creatives who specialized in pushing boundaries.

 

Never Built New York

Never Built New York

Bookshop | $50.60

What might NYC look like in a parallel universe? Never Built New York explores the plans for what could have been. In this must-read tome for architecture lovers, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell explain how everything from Lincoln Center to Central Park could have looked very different.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Bookshop | $15.63

A coming-of-age favorite, this is the perfect book to gift to the teens in your life. Set in Williamsburg long before the rich hipsters arrived, this novel by Betty Smith follows the daughter of immigrant parents who tries to figure out what it means to be a woman.

 

Feeding Gotham

Feeding Gotham

Bookshop | $47.94

The study of political economy examines how economics, custom, and the state interact. In Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790–1860, Gergely Baics examines how New York City learned to feed itself during the early 19th century when the city's population was skyrocketing. Baics' work traces the origins of the modern culinary map—including the inequality that developed between neighborhoods.

 

The Women Who Made New York

The Women Who Made New York

Bookshop | $25.76

The “great man theory” of history has begun to wane in academic circles, but it has surprising staying power even among the work of respected historians. The Women Who Made New York is a refreshing, approachable antidote. From the well-known likes of Audre Lorde to the obscure Emily Warren Roebling, New York City as it is today would not exist without these women.

 

Humans of New York

Humans of New York

Bookshop | $27.59

Since 2010, Brandon Stanton has been recording the stories of New Yorkers. By focusing on the small details, the hidden stories, and the poignant quotes, Stanton has debunked the reputation of a frigid and unfriendly New York. If you love the Humans of New York Instagram, this book will also uplift your spirits and remind you that—even in the big city—there is a lot that connects us.

 

Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles

Broadway- A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles

Bookshop | $17.43

A street synonymous with the best of American theater, Broadway's history is a microcosm of New York en masse. From parades to riots to Wicked, Fran Leadon takes readers through the fascinating history of a famous street.

 

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Bookshop | $9.19

Here's another one for the kids. Suitable for ages eight and up, E.L. Konigsburg won the Newbery Medal in 1968 for this tale of runaway siblings who decide to stay at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The clever plans of Claudia and her brother Jamie will delight young readers, while the mystery of a mysterious marble statue might even make them excited to explore a local museum.

 

The Great Bridge

The Great Bridge- The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

Bookshop | $20.24

From eminent historian David McCullough comes this biography of a NYC architectural gem. The late 19th century in New York was a time of wealth for some, poverty for others, and booming building across the boroughs. Read about how the Brooklyn Bridge came to be and its significance to the history of the city.

 

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham- A History of New York City to 1898

Bookshop | $32.15

This tome explores the history of New York City from founding to 1898. This account by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace—paired with a second time by Wallace covering the years till the end of World War I—is a master course in the metropolis.

 

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

Bookshop | $10.12

Perhaps you read it in highs school, but Edith Wharton's classic novel of upperclass society in NYC has themes of wealth, morality, and love which still sting as social commentary today. Wharton grew up wealthy in the city and in her writings learned to evoke the Gilded Age with both its sparkle and social rot.

 

The Epicurean

The Epicurean Cookbook

Bookshop | $60

Dining at Delmonico's in Gilded Age New York was a chance to see and be seen. One of the oldest true restaurants in the country, Delmonico's rich menus benefited from the hiring of Chef Charles Ranhofer. His 1893 cookbook The Epicurean has been reprinted today as a facsimile full of nostalgia, rich food, and many dishes you have probably never heard of before.

 

Down the Up Staircase

down the up staircase

Bookshop | $26.40

Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family by Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch is part academic history text and part family memoir. It traces the Haynes family across decades as Harlem changes around them and what it means to be a Black American and New Yorker in an ever-changing city.

 

Behold the Dreamers

Behold the Dreamers

Bookshop | $15.64

A modern novel by Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers follows the lives of a married couple from Cameroon who navigate their marital and working worlds together within the context of the immigrant experience. This novel won the PEN/Faulkner Award. It touches upon two important facets of New York history: immigration and the Great Recession.

 

American Chinatown

American Chinatown

Bookshop | $15

American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods by Bonnie Tsui explores the myths and realties of Chinatowns in different American cities. In doing so, she offers insight into the lives of locals who see their communities differently than even their neighbors do only several blocks away.

 

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

Bookshop | $13.79

Many families came to America and found themselves among the Lower East Side tenement buildings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jane Ziegelman approaches one of these crowded buildings through the lens of food and culture. Her investigation into the diets of the immigrants who lived and worked within is one that can reach modern palates today through the inclusion of 40 recipes inspired by this intimate history.

 

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and reading while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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