A book critic's literary tour of Manhattan(Read article summary)
New York Times critic Dwight Garner stopped at book-centered destinations throughout the Big Apple. 'I was smitten all over again,' Garner wrote after his excursion.
The Algonquin Hotel/PR Newswire
We canât think of a better way to explore New York â or any city for that matter â than by way of a self-conducted literary tour, as book critic Dwight Garner recently did, with energy and exuberance, for The New York Times.
Spread across the pages of the Sunday Times in tantalizing detail was Garnerâs assignment in âA Criticâs Tour of Literary Manhattanâ: to âcrisscross the island for a few daysâ to determine whether Manhattanâs literary life, as novelist Gary Shteyngart once lamented, was fading away.
âI wanted to take in Manhattan as a literary tourist,â writes Garner, once senior editor of The New York Times Book Review. âI wanted to touch base with haunts old and new. I wanted to see if there is still, for a certain kind of bibliophilic seeker, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, âsomething in the New York air that makes sleep useless.ââÂ
Literary Manhattan, Garner determined after speaking with several writers and editors, âdoesnât seem to have the wattage it once did.â The culprits? The smoking ban was a âdeath knellâ for the drawn-out hang-outs critical to literary life; the Internet obviated some writersâ need for companionship and consolation; creative energy has largely gone into food, where indie types are churning out artisanal pickles, chocolates, and beers, rather than literary works; and the bookish crowd, in large part, has dispersed into Brooklyn, where folks can actually eke out a life on a writerâs pay.
Nonetheless, Manhattanâs book culture remains vibrant, eclectic, and enduring, if somewhat leaner and occasionally regrettably modernized.
For his enviable assignment, Garner installed himself at the Algonquin, âthe Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs, and used it as a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days...âÂ
Among his stops: CafĂ© Loup, a âgenteel but unpretentious West Village bistroâ that editor of the Paris Review Lorin Stein calls âthe closest thing I know of to a writerâs hangout in the old-fashioned senseâ; Nuyorican Poets CafĂ©, a âwarm and jubilantâ haunt on the Lower East Side where raucous poetry slams are alive and well; KGB Bar, âa dark, intimate Soviet-themed... spaceâ where cult novelist Kris Saknussemm âsoloed like a jazz masterâ while âdeclaiming bits of his new autobiographical book, âSea Monkeysââ; and Lolita in SoHo, where âthe women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunhamâs HBO series, âGirls,ââ and the only readers were carrying Kindles. âWhen itâs no longer possible to tell what attractive young women are reading,â writes Garner, âpart of the romance of Manhattan is gone.â
And while Garner finds the Algonquin, where âDo Not Disturbâ signs read, âQuiet Please: Writing the Great American Novel,â âa bit chilly and corporate,â literary visitors to New York have other options. Thereâs the âsleek and geekyâ Madison Ave. Library Hotel, not far from the New York Public Library, where the floors are categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System and each of the 60 rooms contains a set of books âdevoted to a topic within that category.âÂ
(Those with deeper pockets shelve their luggage at the new NoMad Hotel, housed in a turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building where the cocktail lounge-cum-library features âtwo vaulting stories of lighted bookcases connected by a spiral staircase imported from the South of France.â)
And though the city has far fewer bookstores than it once did (Book Row, along Fourth Ave., housed some three-dozen used bookstores before the last one closed in 1988), âthe cityâs survivors are beautiful to behold,â says Garner.
The highlights: Bauman Rare Books in Midtown, a temple to rare volumes, dearly priced; the small and expertly curated 192 Books in Chelsea; the brilliantly-named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in the West Village; and the charitable Housing Works Bookstore CafĂ© in SoHo. Garnerâs favorites? St. Markâs Bookshop on the Lower East Side, where you go âwhen you need a reminder that the worldâs literary culture is still big and weird and vibrant,â and The Strand, where âItâs worth flying in from London simply to browse the stacks.â
By the end of his literary tour, writes Garner, âI was smitten all over again.â
So are we. We reveled in Garnerâs word-fueled romp through Manhattan, even more so after discovering that not only is literary Manhattan is alive and well, but that we can play a role in enriching literary cultures of cities across the nation if we engage in literary tours in our own cities. Visiting precious used bookshops, quirky indies, prized historic sites, famous scenes and settings with literary associations, and beloved literary hangouts, from trendy cafes to sober libraries to underground dives â what a wonderful way to discover a city and to encourage vibrant literary cultures in cities and towns across the country. We canât wait to plan our own literary tour.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.