A Literary Guide to New York

By Sara Evans

Horace Mann once said, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” More recently, literary enfant-terrible Tavi Gavenson noted, “Write and read as often as you can….people still want books….They make you feel like less of a cog.”

The death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. Proof positive is Rizzoli’s  A Booklover’s Guide to New York, written by Cleo Le-Tan and illustrated by her father, Pierre Le-Tan. Cleo, who was raised in New York, Paris and London, is a literary newcomer but definitely adept at the writing game. Pierre Le-Tan sold his first artwork to The New Yorker when he was a teenager in the 1960’s.

This father/daughter collaboration is, in the truest sense of the word, a miscellany.  A beautifully organized romp through four boroughs of the city, with different areas intelligently delineated by tinted paper and ample portraits of the literati.

The book explores libraries, both private and public, bookshops, authors’ homes and poetry slams. There are  interviews galore, with New York writers and editors of all ages. All delightfully illustrated by Pierre Le-Tan’s distinctive drawings and a treasure trove of photographs. There are the writer’s hotels — the Algonquin, the Chelsea and the Albert. There are the writer’s bars, such as Pete’s Tavern and Dylan Thomas’s beloved and probably fatal White Horse, and the late, lamented Elaine’s, which has morphed into a restaurant called “The  Writing Room,” filled with books and a cheerful fireplace. One could easily spend a week, wandering from one literary watering hole to the next. 

Kindles and Nooks have their uses, especially during travel. But for many of us, there is no greater pleasure than sitting in a comfortable room and opening a  book.  It’s worth thinking about how these precious objects come to be.  I started my career in book production. The hot metal compositors were the most literate and grammar-savvy group I had ever met. The designers made each project into a work of art.  The supplier lunches were long and wet. We all spoke the language of Garamond and Helvetica, serif and sans-serif, like members of a secret society.

People display books in all sorts of ways, stacked on the floor, by the yard, or by color and shade. Some make strange design statements by stacking their books with their spines to the wall or wrapping them, anonymously, in brown paper.  

Our personal libraries are organic; they grow and shrink,  evolve and change. They show who we are and trace our journey through time. Many of us keep our favorite books from childhood. I still have my Heidi, because, unlike most other girls in illustrated books, she had dark hair, like me. I have also kept the Tasha Tudor nursery rhymes I taught myself to read, and the lovely and elegiac Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. 

Then there are the books my grown children have left behind.  The collection of T.E. Lawrence that belongs to my son; my daughter’s signed Madeleine L’Engles.  There is one they both loved: Edward Lear’s hilarious and melancholy The Pobble Who Had No Toes.

My husband grew up poor in South Wales where books were a treasured Christmas gift.  He taught history for over 40 years and his shelves are now triple-stacked with non-fiction and with reference books. For him, getting rid of books is tantamount to having a molar pulled.

I tend to keep my fiction moving, passing books on to friends, and my side of the library reflects my love of travel, poetry and art, of design and decorating, botanical art, gardening and antiques.

My most treasured books are personalized: a signed and numbered Edward Gorey, several beauties by a favorite artist, Will Barnett. I cherish my inscribed Maurice Sendaks, and books autographed by contemporary artists Tracey Emin, Mel Bochner, Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann. I even have a signed autobiography of Christopher Robin Milne, who hated being Christopher Robin but obligingly signed the book that way. 

Books, we have been told, are an anachronism.  They are old-fashioned.  They are clutter and hard to get rid of.  Yet parting with them isn’t easy. In A Booklover’s Guide, Tina and Harold Brown express their sorrow at having to downsize their library when they moved.  “It was very difficult for me to edit everything,” Tina confessed.  She kept asking herself, “Will I ever read this? Is it worth keeping?”  which doubtless slowed the process down.  But books that have long been our companions and our friends, deserve our thoughtful regard. 

Graydon Carter keeps books in every room of his country house in Connecticut, and claims to have read 75 percent of them.

Then there are the total obsessives, like my friend and sometime literary sparring partner, David Bloom who has kept a meticulous record of every book he has read since fourth grade, when he and his friend Oren dressed as a bookmobile for Halloween.

The Le-Tans also take us to the  homes of Willa Cather and Richard Wright, of John Steinbeck, Truman Capote and Edgar Allen Poe. Steinbeck’s apartment on East 72nd Street, where he lived with his wife Elaine until 1968, recently sold for nearly five million dollars — an indication of how much has changed since writers flocked to New York, and paid a few dollars a week for a place to sit and think.

The Le-Tan’s guide reflects the multicultural and polyglot essence of the city, by telling us where to find Japanese and Spanish books, occult books and cookbooks galore. Cleo waxes ecstatic about the newest and most beautiful new bookstore in New York, the breathtaking Albertine.  It has over 14,000 volumes in French, along with exquisite cahiers and notepapers and other irresistible goodies.  The Albertine is housed in the former Pratt Mansion, designed by Stanford White and is arguably the most sparkling jewel in Manhattan’s literary crown. Cleo notes, “When I first heard about the Albertine, it was like the second coming of the Marquis de Lafayette.”

I hope Cleo is contemplating the London book scene next. Pierre Le-Tan died this past September and  A Booklover’s Guide  is his beautiful parting gift. Everyone who reads and/or writes, who has ever been to New York or is planning a trip to New York, should have a copy. It is as close to perfect as literary guidebooks get.

A Booklover's Guide author Cleo Le Tan

Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living

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