Adam Gopnik's 6 favorite memoirs of city life
The National Magazine Award winner recommends works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Honoré de Balzac, and more
Falling Towards England by Clive James (Picador U.K., $13).
My new book is a memoir of arrival — of pilgrimage, ambition, and what happens when (mostly lucky) kids come to big cities. Clive James contributed to this genre of sorts with a wonderful tale of immigration from the colonies to the center — in this case from Australia to London, rather than Canada to New York — that is rich in the great subject of early failure, always more interesting than later success.
London Journal 1762–1763 by James Boswell (Penguin, $18).
Only discovered and printed in the 20th century, this book tells of the memorable year when Boswell arrived in London and met his mentor, Dr. Samuel Johnson — and also carried on delightedly with whores, rakes, and earls.
My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920–1940 by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Cambridge, $30).
A recollection, put together posthumously, of the great romantic's early passage from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Princeton to Manhattan, touching on his belief that there are only "diamonds" — delights to aspire to — and "the shabby gift of disillusion."
A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes (Persephone U.K., $17).
This is a story of a child learning the city around her rather than of a pilgrim going to find a new one, but it has the wide-eyed charm of urban (and urbane) discovery on each page.
The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (Da Capo, $16).
Though Van Ronk only traveled across the East River, he did so at a time when that was an ocean-scale crossing. His tale of the making of Greenwich Village's folk music world is candid and charming — and has the added bonus of capturing the arrival of the young Bob Dylan from Minnesota, with more telling comedy than Dylan did in his own fine Chronicles.
Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac (Modern Library, $18).
Not strictly a memoir, but the archetypal tale of youth, ambition, and big towns. The boy comes to the city intending to be a poet, becomes a hack journalist, and almost — but not quite — ruins his life. The title is — along with The Way of The World and Great Expectations — one of literature's three universal titles.
— Longtime New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award and the author of nine books. In his latest, At the Strangers' Gate, he recalls arriving in 1980s New York City from Montreal.