New York: The Biography
November 17, 2008 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I read Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography awhile back and loved the loose-limbed, ambulatory, anecdote-heavy style of it. Is there a "biography" of New York City that shares some of those characteristics? If not, what is the most fascinating book that covers the full history of New York City (rather than specific time periods or subregions)?

To be a little clearer, I am looking for a book that is rich is anecdotes, or little known facts, or historical curiosities, etc., a book that sprawls all over NYC in both time and place.
posted by Falconetti to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you might like Gotham.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:58 PM on November 17, 2008

"The Power Broker"
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:11 PM on November 17, 2008

Best answer: My curmudgeonly co-worker (who takes it as a point of pride to never get truly excited about anything) tells me that Luc Sante's Low Life is fantastic - an utterly captivating anecdotal history of NYC's underbelly. The Amazon description seems to confirm his unusually strong recommendation:

There are very few classics in the field of pop culture--the academic stuff tends to be too dry and the fun stuff is too quickly dated. This book by Luc Sante is the exception--in fluid prose liberally sprinkled with astute metaphors, Sante tells the story of New York's Lower East Side, circa 1840-1920. The personal histories of criminals, prostitutes, losers, and swindlers bring to life the social and statistical history that the author has meticulously researched. Not limiting himself to the usual sources, Sante finds his history in old copies of Police Gazette as well as actual police, fire, and social service records. Above all, what really makes this book work is the writing, which brings to life a culture of the streets that continues to form a silent influence on our contemporary popular culture.

The 25 five-star reviews out of 32 total would also seem to agree.
posted by mediareport at 7:47 PM on November 17, 2008

Er, sorry about the subregion and 80-year time thing. But sometimes you need to read more than one book about a sprawling subject, and that one, I'm assured, is fantastic.
posted by mediareport at 7:50 PM on November 17, 2008

Response by poster: Yeah, please feel free to ignore my last sentence, since Low Life looks great. mediareport is correct, I was being too constricting with my qualifications.
posted by Falconetti at 7:53 PM on November 17, 2008

low life rules. But Gotham is some next level shit. Be glad I'm on my phone or I'd be going on for pages about how rad that book is. The power broker is also very interesting but not in the same league as Gotham, and not as fun as low life. I'm also a big sucker for luc sante though.
posted by jeb at 8:39 PM on November 17, 2008

Thirding Gotham.
posted by hydatius at 2:31 AM on November 18, 2008

I enjoyed New York, New York by Oliver E. Allen. It covers from the time of European settlement up to the late 1980s.
posted by kram175 at 5:00 AM on November 18, 2008

If you'd consider fiction, Forever is about an 18th Century Irishman who is granted immortality, as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. Provides a nice vantage point for the history of the city.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:57 AM on November 18, 2008

Best answer: All Around the Town

the "sequel" to The Gangs Of New York it's a thin but very readable volume of nothing but anecdotes from 1701 to 1880. The Amazon price is a bit much (it's a very fast read) but The Strand has it for 5 bucks, which seems about right.
posted by The Whelk at 12:53 PM on December 7, 2008

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