The Books That Helped Me Adjust to a Big City

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Written By Pinang Driod

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As soon as I moved from the sprawling suburbs of Tennessee to a place where the train, the bus, or my feet could take me pretty much anywhere, at pretty much any time, I became an instant urban convert. I still remember that first giddiness about living in a city, where excitement “pulses through daily life,” as Pamela Newton writes; this week, she’s assembled a list of books that capture what it’s like to experience places like New York, Tokyo, and London.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s books section:

  • America’s immigration reckoning has arrived.
  • There’s no such thing as a meaningful death.
  • The 19th-century novel that reaffirmed my Zionism
  • Living through the end of California

In 2018, I arrived in Washington, D.C., and fitting into the city’s “giant, dense human puzzle,” as Newton puts it, wasn’t immediate or easy. But my first job was to write about local arts and culture, so I turned to books to help me understand the history, and the spirit, of my new home. The first title my editors insisted I read was Dream City: Race, Power, and Decline in Washington, D.C., by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, an overview of District politics that covers the city’s switch from congressional control to home rule, and Mayor Marion Barry’s first three terms. Other books that came heavily recommended were Go-Go Live, about D.C.’s homegrown funk sound, and Chocolate City, a 400-year examination of democratic ideals—and how leaders have fallen short of them—in the capital. Over time, I started to recognize some names of the writers who have helped make up the city’s literary scene: George Pelecanos, E. Ethelbert Miller, Dinaw Mengestu, Elizabeth Acevedo.

The best D.C. book I’ve read is Edward P. Jones’s 1992 short-story collection, Lost in the City, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is constantly cited as a classic. Jones patiently conjures whole social worlds from the ground up; the first story, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” still stands out in my mind for the tender and brutal ways it describes birds living and birds dying, and for its precision about space and landmarks in a neighborhood on the edge of North Capitol Street that’s on the verge of being wiped out.

More recently, Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage, a ghostly family drama set in 1970s Anacostia, captures a special kind of urban mood. Its main character, Nephthys, is both a mythic ferryman for the lost and a taxi driver broken by the death of her twin, on a mission to prevent more misfortune from touching her family. Although the novel’s operatic language and supernatural happenings can sometimes be disorienting, Yejidé grounds the writing by focusing on the ties that keep Nephthys and her community together.

I’ve lived here for only a few years, and I’ve read just a small selection of the books on the metaphorical D.C. syllabus. Next on my list is Shahan Mufti’s recent book American Caliph, about a terrorist group’s dramatic 1977 attack on three D.C. buildings. After that, I may have to go to the D.C. Public Library’s main branch and peruse its stacks. All of the books that re-create what happened before my time help me feel more tied to the place where I’ve put down roots, and help me imagine my future here.

Andrea Fremiotti / Gallery Stock

Eight Novels That Truly Capture City Life

What to Read

The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith

People tend to think of Highsmith’s classic as a lesbian romance rather than a road novel, but it’s both: The second half of the book takes place in a car, as the protagonist, Therese, decides to go with her crush, Carol, on a trip west during those peculiar, formless weeks around Christmas and New Year’s. Sharing motel rooms with two twin beds in anonymous small towns, the women can finally act on their mutual attraction. Therese discovers that she likes being Carol’s passenger, as it allows her to train her gaze, and her camera, on Carol and the American vistas, seeking a new kind of understanding. Carol, freed from the imprisonment of her suburban town and her husband, is finally able to lean into her sexual power, turning her probing curiosity to Therese. Only in this remote, liberated setting can the pair see each other clearly enough to recognize that they are in love—and yet they’re being followed by a mysterious car and an overly friendly man. Their romance pushes the novel to its difficult, but surprisingly sweet, conclusion. — Emma Copley Eisenberg

From our list: Eight books to take with you on a road trip

Out Next Week

📚 Cahokia Jazz, by Francis Spufford

📚 You Glow in the Dark, by Liliana Colanzi

📚 Burma Sahib, by Paul Theroux

Your Weekend Read

A man looking at a large portrait of Basquiat in museum gallery with two paintings hanging in the background.
“The fact that these masterpieces even exist untouched for thirty years is a marvelous miracle for all of us,” Aaron De Groft, then OMA’s director, wrote in the show’s catalog.

The dispute has highlighted a fundamental predicament: The art world is crawling with counterfeits—estimates of the proportion of art on the secondary market that isn’t what it claims to be range from 40 to 70 percent—and it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish a forgery from the real thing. Attributions can flip repeatedly during the life of an artwork, a phenomenon that has become even more common as experts reassess collections with help from new scientific techniques. The result is that the question of authenticity, which seems like it should be cut-and-dried, has come to seem quite fluid. That can create confusion, but also opportunities.

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Emma Sarappo is an associate editor at The Atlantic.


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