A Book About New York

I like to read books about other places, both fiction and non-fiction. And there are several cities that figure prominently in the collection of books I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to pick up books about New York City, Paris and Venice. Mr. Math picks up books about broader swaths of territory, like Russia, Belize and Chile. Last fall, before going to New York City, I did some collecting of appropriate books to read. It was my intention to spend some more time as a tourist than has usually been the case when I’ve gone to Manhattan – I usually spend a lot of time meeting with publishing industry people. This is a good thing, but I was starting to feel that I’d been through Manhattan but never really been there. And I like what I’ve seen. So, I added a couple of days to my trip to play tourist.

One of the books I found at the library was so intriguing that I returned it there and bought a copy. I’ve only just finished reading it. It was a chewy book, one that was both thought-provoking and intriguing. The book is Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate. It’s a beguiling and distinctive mix of memoir, history, observation and travelogue. In a way, it’s a hybrid of genres, both guidebook and memoir, plus a history of the waterfront regions of the city. The author begins his journey at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan and works up the west side in increments, then returns to that same southern tip to work his way up the east side. Along the way, he shares stories about the city and its history, along with his own experiences in certain neighborhoods. He also discusses fiction set in New York, non-fiction and movies, giving a view of the popular ideas associated with each location. All the while, he explores the question of how a city should meet the water, once the industrial port is gone. How do city residents use the waterfront? How should they be able to? What should be there? The discussion of politics and policy and public will is fascinating, and makes me realize how hard it is to create change in a large city.

I grew up in Toronto, another city with a strong relationship to the water – Lake Ontario, in that case – and also one with a once-bustling port that is now much less busy. There are a lot of industrial properties and brownlands where Toronto meets the lake, with some parks and bike trails interspersed. There is a highway restricting both access to the water and glimpses of it, as well as a number of luxury high rise condominiums. Much of what Mr. Lopate observes in New York is also visible in Toronto. Overall, there’s an inescapable sense that opportunity is being lost in this area of Toronto, although there are no obvious answers as to how it could better evolve. I was very struck by the author’s discussions of vibrant streetscapes and his desire to see the bustle of the city extend into these neglected areas. I liked his idea of leaving room for spontaneity on waterfront lands. It got me to thinking about Toronto and how it could evolve, as well as making me want to go back to New York and explore some more.

Overall, Mr. Lopate was a wonderful guide to his native city. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone curious about New York or about the evolution of waterfront lands.

Have you read anything that surprised and intrigued you lately?

Another Interesting Book

A while ago, I saw the movie Anonymous. If you haven’t seen it, it’s either historical fiction or historical speculation – the idea is that somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, specifically a nobleman named Edward de Vere. The movie told his story. It was beautifully photographed and very evocative of Elizabethan England. The chronology of the story was a bit convoluted though, so we watched it twice. (This is the advantage of waiting for a movie to be available for rent, rather than going to the movie theater!) Overall, I liked it and was intrigued by its hypothesis.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a book called “SHAKESPEARE” BY ANOTHER NAME: THE LIFE OF EDWARD DE VERE, EARL OF OXFORD, THE MAN WHO WAS SHAKESPEARE by Mark Anderson. (This is the advantage of having bricks and mortar bookstores to browse through – you can find books you didn’t know existed and synchronicity gets a little more room to play.) It’s a really interesting book. Again, it follows the life of de Vere and builds a case for him being the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. There’s no hard evidence but so many coincidences and connections that you have to wonder. I’m not an expert in this area – I’ve read Shakespeare’s plays and seen many productions, but he’s too late for me as a medievalist to know much about him and his world beyond that – but I find this book and its theory very compelling. This idea of de Vere being the actual playright was apparently¬† suggested a long time ago. Probably there are dozens of papers by Shakespearean scholars arguing in favour of it and against it – maybe I’ll look them up when I’m done. Right now, I’m enjoying the book and the glimpse of de Vere’s life in Elizabethan England.

What about you? Have you read any non-fiction lately that’s made you rethink your assumptions?