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article imageReview: Past and present collide in New York Diaries Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Mar 1, 2012 in Arts
New York - Andy Warhol is one of many figures in New York Diaries 1609 - 2009 (Modern Library), a fascinating book covering four hundred years of Big Apple experiences and observations.
Editor Teresa Carpenter has organized entries according to date, so the work commences January 1st with an 1844 entry from author/diplomat John Bigelow: “My taste in writing is chastened some.” The reader’s appetite for reading, however, grows with each entry as the dates fly by. Carpenter nicely places mundanities alongside profundities, making New York Diaries one of the eminently readable, and easily approachable, tomes on Big Apple history, one that will enchant and satisfy with its depth of detail and breadth of range.
Carpenter is no stranger to writing herself. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist who has authored four books, including the New York Times bestseller Missing Beauty. Her eye for detail here is keen. She has chosen figures whose lives are as varied the city they describe; scholars, scientists, politicians, artists, writers, and many more prove that the city never does, in fact, sleep. British civil servant Ambrose Serle’s entry from November 10th, 1776 is fascinating for its observations on “Northern and Southern People” and the resulting polarization; it works nicely bumped up the words of filmmaker Jonas Mekas, whose November 10th, 1949 entry details the dreariness of looking for (and then finding considerably monotonous) work. Such sentiments have an immediacy that strips away their age, rendering them fresh for a whole new century.
In an age of stunningly short attention spans, it’s a kind of blessing that New York Diaries is a book that begs for curious browsing. One could open the book to an entry from December 19th, 2008 and see publisher David Patrick Columbia’s take on the Bernie Madoff scandal (“he must be dying a thousand deaths. Or ten thousand.”) and then flip back to artist French aerialist Philippe Petit’s entry from August 7th, 1974: “... Wire and I together, we voluptuously penetrate the cloudy layer that melts as we approach, as we pass between the twin towers...” These sorts of entries can be read alongside lengthier ones detailing sights of Fifth Avenue in the nineteenth century, or indeed, the forming of the city through the 1600s and 1700s. But the book does not demand great yawning spans of attention the way a formal novel would, and Carpenter is wise to break up the narrative with both light and heavy morsels.
Still, if one is inclined to read the old-fashioned way - one page after the other, left to right in the great Western tradition - it will become apparent that some entries possess a sort of narrative theme. This surprisingly delightful tendency was noticeable in the writings of theater personality Judith Malina. Amidst jottings about the San Remo and this-and-that bar, she lays bare her heart-rending one-sided infatuation with writer/mythologist Joseph Campbell; another timely entry on survival in the Big Apple contains the actress-y like observation, “In the offices the receptionists say: “Try next month”...”. One can almost hear - nay, see -her acting out the scenario: the bored eyes of the receptionists, Malina’s frowning in frustration. The theme of loneliness, of being solitary in such a huge city, is apparent, and relatable. Who among us hasn't had that experience in New York at one point or another? Such is the quality of writing in New York Diaries; it’s personal, as is to be expected, but it’s also, despite the age of some of the material, startlingly immediate. This immediacy comes in other forms; Jack Kerouac’s August 2nd entry from 1948 finds him writing about his work habits and enjoying a meal that included “spaghetti with blood-red sauce.” The line at once captures the vibrancy of Kerouac’s writing and the atmosphere of the city itself: gleaming, alive, a bit dangerous, intoxicating, sexy, in-your-face.
The latter quality is most clearly expressed in entries from September 11th. Carpenter provides a bit of perspective on this day, offering a variety of entries from the years 1609, 1662, 1781, 1862, 1950, and 2001. The great sense of shock from the Twin Towers falling extends itself over several entries, on several days, and Carpenter has wisely chosen to include descriptive, personal entries. Writer Eric Rosenfield writes about the piece of paper he found in the district after the attacks; blogger Jeremiah McVay expresses surprise at St. Mark’s Comics being open (“this week’s shipments arrived as scheduled today.”); writer/restauranteur George Weld recalls seeing a father “teaching his son to ride a tricycle in the middle of Grand Street, which is usually bumper-to-bumper traffic.” On September 15th Weld offers a wonderful summation of the experience that could be a theme for the book:
People keep asking me if I want to get out of the city now. I don’t want to get out at all: I feel I’ve been nailed to this city forever, tattooed as its own.
This sort of poetry, mixed with gritty realism and determination, is typical of the book’s tone, and one of its chief delights. I would like to see Carpenter edit another New York Stories-style book with its scope limited to such twentieth century cultural figures - that’s my own bias as a pop culture fan (more Keith Haring! More Kerouac! More Wojnarowicz! And how about Lou Reed and Robert Mapplethorpe too?) - but with New York Diaries, Carpenter has woven a rich, sometimes intimidatingly smart tapestry. If you’re not completely up on your history, you may find yourself making good use of the Who’s Who index at the back of the back, which is, in and of itself, a mighty showcase that testifies to the gloriously broad ambitions of the book. Regardless, New York Diaries offers a gorgeous collection of snapshots, lovingly capturing the magic of a city that remains, like a tattoo, imprinted on the souls of all who live, or have lived, inside its swirling dance of inspiration, perspiration, magic and mayhem. Viva New York.
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