This month I read two books set in New York.
The location was all they had in common. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer was a frequently funny drama about a boy trying to come to terms with his father's death in the 9/11 attacks. "Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem was an everything-is-not-what-it-seems tale, laced with marijuana.
Reading the books back to back made me consider how many others I've read that are set in the city. Some I picked out after we moved here, like "Washington Square" by Henry James, and "Motherless Brooklyn," also by Jonathan Lethem.
But I'm sure I read most before I ever dreamed I'd live here. In fact, I think my first introduction to New York by book was The Baby-Sitter's Club book #18, "Stacey's Mistake" (what does it mean that I knew the book's number but had to look up the title on Amazon?). I still remember the scene when Stacey watched a cockroach crawl across her bedroom floor.
I feel like I know the city well enough now that it really adds something to the whole "reading experience," to use a yucky term. I can not only picture the neighborhood, street or location in my head, but also infer what the author is trying to tell me about characters by placing them there.
Before we moved here, I can remember having that experience while reading only one other book-- "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," set in my hometown. But even that wasn't quite the same. Sure, I recognized street names, but there was no hidden meanings when this or that neighborhood was mentioned. Heck, there were no neighborhoods to mention.
One book I recently read that is set in New York, however, left me with a bad taste in my mouth: "Julie & Julia." At the very beginning, the author moves from Bay Ridge to Long Island City, in Queens. That's fine, but did she have to bash my neighborhood as she sped up the expressway?