Book Trout Book Review: Reading New York, by John Tytell (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
The book reeled me in with its grainy old cover photo of a 1911 Manhattan street scene and the sexy subtitle "A Celebration of New York Writers, The Essence of the City, and the Transforming Effects of Reading", but what really hooked me in the gills was the short first chapter which described the author's horrible eye condition which necessitated periodic corneal scrapings and a prohibition against reading. Weepy eyes and parents notwithstanding, Tytell went ahead and read. What a little hero!
The rest of the book interjects snippets of Tytell's youth, university days, sexual awakening with his Arthur Murray dance teacher, and (more interestingly) his interviews, research and sometimes interaction with leading literati in New York City. He offers short overviews of the work of some major NYC writers, including Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and the various Beats.
Tytell's style is polished and interesting, and the fact that he met with Miller, Allen Ginsberg and some of the other Beat writers and can provide a contrast between their private and public personas gives the book a freshness and intimacy with the reader.
My only criticism is that the end was much too abrupt. I was cantering along with Tytell in the 1970s, as his Queens College teaching job was in financial jeopardy, along with the rest of the New York City government, when I turned the page to find out that there were only two more chapters left. The final chapter summarizes the next thirty years of Tytell's writing career in five choppy sentences. He went to Venice to write about Ezra Pound, taught in Paris, hung out in Southeast Asia and then came back to roost with some doves in the Village. I guess that's all fodder for the next book.
The Book Trout recommends this book, particularly for the New York City-Obsessed, Lovers of Literary Biography, Beat Readers and those who fancy good Books About Books.