Literary New York: Past, Present, and Future

Literary New York: Past, Present, and Future

New York City is home to an incredible number of historic landmarks: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Coney Island, and the beloved New York Public Library. While we hope these favorite spots are here to stay, we can’t help but wonder what a futuristic NYC would look like. Young adult author Katharine McGee gives readers a glimpse of what she thinks the future might hold in The Thousandth Floor. Set in a thousand-floor skyscraper, McGee’s novel follows several teenagers as they navigate the year 2118 and try to take in all that still-glittering Manhattan has to offer. McGee’s research included studying how NYC has historically been represented in literature, and here she’s rounded up some of her favorite versions of past, present, and future Manhattan.

Ahh, New York! The Big Apple, the concrete jungle (that makes you feel brand new), the city that never sleeps. The city of Orphan Annie and Holly Golightly and Holden Caulfield and Carrie Bradshaw. For centuries, New York has captured our creative imagination—in literature, film, and even comic books—and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon!

In my debut novel The Thousandth Floor, I imagine New York City a hundred years from now, when most of Manhattan has become an enormous thousand-story skyscraper. I’ve now moved away to Philadelphia, but I lived in New York for five years, and I absolutely love the city, with a deeply emotional and sometimes irrational love. I really miss it.

While writing The Thousandth Floor, I thought a lot about how my depiction of a futuristic New York fits into the larger canon of literature about the city. So, to celebrate my upcoming publication, I want to share some of my favorite books set in New York!

New York of the past

The House of Mirth

If you haven’t read Edith Wharton, the queen of scathing social satire about Gilded Age New York, you’re missing out. The House of Mirth follows Lily Bart, an ethereally beautiful heroine who was brought up in a world of refinement and luxury; but who, after the death of her parents, begins to slip down the social ladder. The story of her ill-fated, surprisingly modern romance with lawyer Lawrence Selden is heartbreaking (because of course, no society lady can possibly marry a lawyer). Wharton’s language is beautiful in every sharp, powerful, and ultimately tragic scene.

The Luxe series

This young adult series is also set in turn-of-the-century New York City—with plenty of secrets, betrayals, and romance in a lush historical setting. You’ll meet Elizabeth Holland, the seemingly perfect society girl with a dark secret; her capricious younger sister Diana; Penelope Hayes, the deliciously clever schemer who’s determined to become queen bee; and Carolina Broad, a maid who wants to be so much more. This is a New York City of glittering ballrooms, formal high tea, stolen kisses in carriage rides. I couldn’t put this series down!

Hamilton: The Revolution

Okay, okay, so this is a book about the making of the musical, but I’m sneaking it onto the list anyway! I was lucky enough to see Hamilton and it completely blew my mind. The New York City of Hamilton is a New York caught in the turmoil of Revolution—full of new ideas, chaos, bloodshed, and yet an indefatigable optimism that the city still has today. After all, it’s easy to forget that before Washington D.C., New York was actually the nation’s capital! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are so characteristic of New York: “History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world!” I guess some things don’t change, since New Yorkers will always think that New York is the center of the universe.

New York of the present

The Devil Wears Prada

This book is nonstop laughs. For those of you who haven’t read it (or seen the movie with the incomparable Meryl Streep), it follows Andrea Sachs, who gets “the job a million girls would kill for” as the assistant to Miranda Priestly, the terrifying editor-in-chief of Runway magazine. This is a darkly hilarious New York full of glamorous cocktail parties (that Andy is forced to work, not attend), stilettos, office politics, and over-the-top personalities that make this book a perennially fun read.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians series

This might be middle grade, but it’s still one of my favorite series of all time. I can’t get enough of the way that Rick Riordan twists and changes Greek mythology for his own purposes. In particular, New York has become the new home of Mount Olympus, with the entrance to the home of the gods located at the top of the Empire State Building.

New York of the future


This is one of the wildest and most ambitious science fiction novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. 2312 is set three centuries from now, when humanity has colonized most of the solar system, from a burning-hot city on Mercury to cities on the moons of Saturn. My favorite part (unsurprisingly) is when the main characters, Swan and Wahram, visit New York City—which thanks to global warming and rising sea levels has become a city of canals, much like modern Venice, where the “taxis” are gondolas and the gardens are beautifully-arranged water lilies. It’s a thought-provoking and eloquent vision of what New York might look like someday, if we’re not careful.

Katharine McGee is from Houston, Texas. She studied English and French literature at Princeton and has an MBA from Stanford. It was during her years living in a second-floor apartment in New York City that she kept daydreaming about skyscrapers… and then she started writing. The Thousandth Floor is her first novel.


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