Favorite Brooklyn Books

Favorite Brooklyn Books

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Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman

“Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has been my favorite Brooklyn book for decades, though my relationship to it has evolved. Not only was Whitman from Brooklyn—and a multitude of Brooklyn hipster writers could be said to be made in his image (a bi-sexual poet who started an indie newspaper and cultivated extravagant facial hair?)—he was the first writer I was aware of being from Brooklyn. When I read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in high school I understood and appreciated the meaning—we are all connected by our shared experiences, past and present—but it wasn’t until years later, when defined as a writer and a citizen of this city, taking in our common landscape, the river, the clouds, and the buildings, I finally felt completely in tune with the Bard of Brooklyn.” —Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls

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Man Gone Down
Michael Thomas

“I love everything about this book: the lyrical, taut prose that renders a complex portrait of race and masculinity in contemporary America, the haunting exploration of the struggle to remain true to another in the midst of existential crisis. It tells the story of what it means to be an American: to penetrate the surface of this complicated world, and put down roots that will not be moved.” —Rebecca Walker, author of Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self

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My Name is Asher Lev
Chaim Potok

“I read this book as a teenager, and all I could remember from it was how much the character affected me. I would go on to read every Potok book I could find. I came back to this a few months ago and found myself riveted again by Asher Lev’s struggles to balance his artistic gift with the desires of his family and his religious beliefs. It’s a book for those who find themselves pulled between their life as an artist and any other identity they have. It is a subtle, deeply moving meditation on the power of art to both uplift and devastate.” —Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

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Requiem for a Dream
Hubert Selby, Jr.

“My pick would be Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream—his horrifying vision of the farthest ends of addiction; how people end up when they have no center, no support, no God. A nightmare of wretchedness and pain. It’s one of my favorite books and my favorite Brooklyn book.” —Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?

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The Education of Hyman Kaplan
Leonard Q. Ross

“This is the first book I read in English after I arrived in Brooklyn, and it had an enormous impact. Not only did I identify with Hyman’s challenges with English, but his optimism and sense of humor were inspiring. The book helped me understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggle to learn a new language, to function in a different climate, to find courage in a new environment and culture, and it helped me feel connected to all immigrants seeking solace in estadounidense society. “To tell you the truth, it’s been years since I read this book, and it’s quite possible that Hyman lived in the Lower East Side, but as I read the book, I envisioned him in the same Williamsburg neighborhood as mine, in the same buildings, and with the same people.” —Esmeralda Santiago, author of Conquistadora

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A Walker in the City
Alfred Kazin

“This memoir by the late literary critic Alfred Kazin introduced me to the first Brooklyn I ‘knew.’ There’s handball, misery, pickles, sleeping on fire escapes, and dreaming of trips into Manhattan to read at the New York Public Library. It’s a Brooklyn less of pilgrimage than of pilgrims. Reading it feels like getting to hear from a Keats who lived long enough to reflect back on the self he built out of what had seemed like everything but his own origins—origins that leave their unwelcomed and felicitous residue.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith

“The story of Francie growing up in Brooklyn and the family she belongs to reminds me of my family and my childhood in Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s. The issue of poor kids in one school and rich kids in another was prevalent even then. The Tree of Heaven, that refuses to not grow, makes me think of when I was a young prizefighter and my trainer would always say, ‘Keep Punchin.’ A great book.” —Tony Danza, author of I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High

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Sexus
Henry Miller

“No one has ever written more passionately about sex, food, love, friendship, art—and Brooklyn.” —Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

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Desperate Characters
Paula Fox

“Desperate Characters is a novel of the Brooklyn before this Brooklyn—not our present hyper-civilized, bespoke, artisanal Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn of the late 1960’s, a barely civilized, practically post-apocalyptic Brooklyn that felt like it was on the edge of social and economic collapse. Sophie and Otto are a married couple living on a brownstone block in Brooklyn Heights. The story begins when a stray cat that Sophie has been feeding bites her on the hand, and she starts to worry that it gave her rabies. Magnificently bleak and pitilessly accurate, the novel escalates until Sophie and Otto are fighting a two-front war against the chaos outside their walls and the chaos within themselves.” —Lev Grossman, author of The Magician King

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Last Exit to Brooklyn
Hubert Selby, Jr.

“It was the primary influence on Richard Price’s The Wanderers, which is the book that made me want to become a writer. Plus, it’s one of the great urban novels of the 20th Century.” —Dennis Lehane, author of Live by Night

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

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