E.B. White’s Here Is New York has been described as a ‘remarkable, pristine essay’, and The New York Times lists it as one of the best ten books ever written about the ‘grand metropolis’ of the city. White’s essay was originally an article written for Holiday magazine; he declined to revise it at all before it was published in book form in 1948. New York is one of my absolute favourite cities, and I have been eager to read White’s essay for years; thankfully, my parents bought me a lovely slim hardback copy, introduced by Roger Angell, for Christmas.
In Here Is New York, the reader receives the privilege of going ‘arm-in-arm’ with White as he strolls around Manhattan. Of course, the view which we receive of the city is an antiquated one – seventy years can hardly pass without a great deal of change, after all. White himself writes of his decision not to revise the piece: ‘The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum.’ Angell justifies this lack of revision: ‘The thought occurs that this book should now be called Here Was New York, except that White himself has foreseen this dilemma, The tone of his text is already valedictory, and even as he describes the city’s gifts he sees alterations “in tempo and temper”. Change is what this book is all about.’ Angell rather touchingly adds that ‘Even as he looked at the great city, [White] was missing what it had been.’
Here Is New York is not a long essay, by any means, and is made up of just 7,500 words. In his introduction, Ansell writes that whilst this book is ‘of modest length… it speaks more eloquently about what lasts and what really matters than other, more expansive pieces.’ White is not always complimentary about the city, although one can tell that he is impassioned of his chosen topic; rather early on in the essay, he writes: ‘The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.’
As a modern reader, I was obviously unfamiliar with many of the places which White mentions. However, his descriptions feel wonderfully vivid, as though one could walk around the corner and find oneself somewhere he has mentioned, which has not stood in that particular place for decades. Much of what he says, with regard to the inhabitants of the city for instance, still feels pertinent: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’
Here Is New York has a wonderfully, and sometimes sadly, nostalgic feel to it, and throughout, White’s writing is both measured and intelligent. New York is a character in itself throughout the essay, and it is recognised in all of its grit and beauty. I shall end my review with a gorgeous and sweeping description of the city, as White saw it all of those years ago: ‘The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’
I am of the mind that many children’s books appeal just as much to adults as to their intended audiences. Below are five books I would recommend to any child, and to the adult reader yearning to reconnect with their own childhoods.
1. The Borrowers – Mary Norton
The Borrowers tells the story of a family of little people – the ‘borrowers’ of the novel’s title – as they face the threats and cruelty of the humans around them. The borrowers are all delightfully endearing in their own ways, and the way in which they use human tools to aid their own lives is just lovely. If you enjoy The Borrowers, I am pleased to let you know that there are several more books in the series, each just as wonderful and exciting as the first.
2. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
I read this for the first time a couple of months ago whilst travelling down to London to see the marvellous play version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Whilst I normally pick something a little more grown up to take with me on journeys, it was the only book on my to-read shelf which was small enough to fit into my satchel along with the many other items I had to transport with me. Charlotte’s Web is an adorable story, even for an arachnophobe like me. Wilbur the pig is the most endearing, but every single character, however small their appearance, plays some importance in the grand scheme of things.
3. Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
I was trying to shy away from using already popular books in this list, but I couldn’t help putting Pippi Longstocking in. Pippi – full name Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking, or Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump in Swedish – is one of my absolute favourite protagonists, and the adventures she gets up to are full of wonder and imagination.
4. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit – Sylvia PlathFew people know that Plath wrote children’s books alongside The Bell Jar and her poetry, but she did. All of her children’s stories are delightful, but The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit is particularly charming. It tells the story of young Max Nix, who is searching for the perfect outfit. Plath’s writing is both simplistic and lovely, and the illustrations throughout are just gorgeous.
5. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Ian Fleming
Suffice to say, Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is so much better than the film which many of us watched at some point during our childhoods. The story is simple but well crafted, and there is no creepy child catcher in sight.