A book critic's literary tour of Manhattan

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.

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    Penguin Group authors discuss their new books at the Algonquin Hotel, one of critic Dwight Garner's stops on a literary tour of Manhattan.
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We can’t think of a better way to explore New York – or any city for that matter – 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 Garner’s assignment in “A Critic’s Tour of Literary Manhattan”: to “crisscross the island for a few days” to determine whether Manhattan’s literary life, as novelist Gary Shteyngart once lamented, was fading away.

“I wanted to take in Manhattan as a literary tourist,” writes Garner, once senior editor of The New York Times Book Review. “I 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, ‘something in the New York air that makes sleep useless.’” 

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Literary Manhattan, Garner determined after speaking with several writers and editors, “doesn’t seem to have the wattage it once did.” The culprits? The smoking ban was a “death knell” for the drawn-out hang-outs critical to literary life; the Internet obviated some writers’ 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 writer’s pay.

Nonetheless, Manhattan’s book culture remains vibrant, eclectic, and enduring, if somewhat leaner and occasionally regrettably modernized.

For his enviable assignment, Garner installed himself at the Algonquin, “the 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...” 

Among his stops: Café Loup, a “genteel but unpretentious West Village bistro” that editor of the Paris Review Lorin Stein calls “the closest thing I know of to a writer’s hangout in the old-fashioned sense”; Nuyorican Poets Café, a “warm and jubilant” haunt on the Lower East Side where raucous poetry slams are alive and well; KGB Bar, “a dark, intimate Soviet-themed... space” where cult novelist Kris Saknussemm “soloed like a jazz master” while “declaiming bits of his new autobiographical book, ‘Sea Monkeys’”; and Lolita in SoHo, where “the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls,’” and the only readers were carrying Kindles. “When it’s no longer possible to tell what attractive young women are reading,” writes Garner, “part of the romance of Manhattan is gone.”

And while Garner finds the Algonquin, where “Do Not Disturb” signs read, “Quiet Please: Writing the Great American Novel,” “a bit chilly and corporate,” literary visitors to New York have other options. There’s the “sleek and geeky” 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 “devoted to a topic within that category.” 

(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 “two vaulting stories of lighted bookcases connected by a spiral staircase imported from the South of France.”)

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), “the city’s survivors are beautiful to behold,” 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 Café in SoHo. Garner’s favorites? St. Mark’s Bookshop on the Lower East Side, where you go “when you need a reminder that the world’s literary culture is still big and weird and vibrant,” and The Strand, where “It’s worth flying in from London simply to browse the stacks.”

By the end of his literary tour, writes Garner, “I was smitten all over again.”

So are we. We reveled in Garner’s 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 – what a wonderful way to discover a city and to encourage vibrant literary cultures in cities and towns across the country. We can’t wait to plan our own literary tour.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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