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The Best Book Group in New York

By Steve Zeitlin
Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #24
Produced in collaboration with Voices: Journal of New York Folklore
Special editorial thanks: Martha Dahlen

OK, maybe we’re not the “best book group” in all New York.  But back in 2004, author  Wayne Barrett nominated us to the Village Voice’s annual “Best Of” list, and so the name Best Book Group (BBG) stuck. We had only been around a few years back then.  We were founded in 2002.  According to founding member Lynne Harlow, it happened this way:

Alex Herzan and I were having a sushi picnic at the Lily Auchincloss Foundation office when this idea was hatched. For our lunch picnics we would sit on the carpet that was a fantastic shade of red that had been the founder, Lily Auchincloss’, signature color. I mentioned to Alex that I had decided to mark my 10th anniversary as a New Yorker by reading a year of books about NYC. I hadn’t come up with a list of books yet, but I had decided to start with Ragtime.

 Alex was excited about my plan and had the great idea to make it a book group. The original group included Caroline Wharton Ewing, Jamie Bennett, Janet Levoff, the late and beloved, Ted Westergard, Alex and me. Other members straggled in as the years wore on: Jonathan Kuhn, Alvin Eng, John Loonam, Alden Warner, Deborah Wye, Christina Spellman, Tom Finkelpearl, Doug Chilcott, and you Steve. We’ve operated with the same basic format from the very beginning, rotating through members to select each book, and giving the group about a month and a half to read it.

So the rainstorm of words began with Ragtime – Harry Houdini crashing his car into a telephone pole in 1906 in New Rochelle, ushering in a host of characters ranging from Emma Goldman to Sigmund Freud and an itinerant peddler. Then Great Fortune – on the building of Rockefeller Center. The next month BBG was on to Motherless Brooklyn – Lionel Essrog, an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome, tries to keep the words straight as he solves a mystery. Next, A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, followed by Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn – with its transgender prostitutes and hoodlums. Then, Astor Place Riots – where a well-known American actor, Edwin Forrest, and William Macready, a notable English actor, fought over who was a better Shakespearean, sparking a riot that resulted in more than 20 deaths. A month later, BBG read Time and Again – time traveling back to 1882 NYC to solve a beguiling mystery. Ping ponging from fiction to non-fiction, the next book was Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan. BBG then read about the fall of high society in Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth, then tackled Luk Sante’s Low Life, imbibing the teeming, turbulent and sometimes murderous story of the city’s slums. And BBG was just getting started.


With more than 150 books behind us, picking favorites isn’t easy. David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital proved a favorite of a number of members. Alden Warner recalls, “When Alex Herzan chose this book, she apologized in advance for picking such a doubtlessly-dull tome to inflict upon us. In the end, not only did I enjoy it, but I gave this book to at least five friends and every single one thanked me profusely.” Andrea Elliot’s Invisible Child was another selection of several members. John Loonam writes, “To see the drive and intelligence of the young woman portrayed here, and to see the obstacles society constantly puts in front of her is an invitation to the complex compassion that we owe each other.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Beautiful and Damned and  Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X are two other noteworthy titles that stand out in members’ memories.

Founding member Alex Herzan picked Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark. “This book explores the natural world of Central Park after dark – and the plethora of wildlife that thrives there. For the book discussion,  the author, Marie Winn, joined us for a meal at the Central Park Boathouse. The meeting was some time in the winter and I remember a large languorous raccoon came and tapped on the glass as we were having dinner! Almost sending us a message.” After dinner, Ms. Winn guided us to other nearby spots, including a expose of slug sex on tree branches, definitely a scintillating moment for the group.

The  essential feature of BBG is that we have our discussions at places either mentioned in or evocative of that month’s book. The group thus becomes our own  adventurous way of exploring the city.  The places and tastes take us deeper into the books, and the books enrich our experience of the flavors.  

A plethora of memories overflows from the many glasses raised and clinked at the tables where we’ve met and dined:

Janet Levoff dancing at Sammy’s Roumanian

Dancing with Janet to the strains of Jewish tunes at Sammy’s Roumanian Restaurant on Christie Street on the Lower East Side after we read Michael Gold’s 1930 novel, Jews Without Money, about a young immigrant boy in New York. (Steve)

Sipping wine at the River Club looking out over the river toward Manhattan trying to imagine where George Washington’s troops landed after being surround by the British in Brooklyn and had to retreat by water to Manhattan after reading Steven Jaffe’s New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham. (Caroline)

 Listening to our own member Jonathan Kuhn singing George Cohen’s “Give My Regards to Broadway,” Cole Porter’s “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof”, Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and other classics at a Times Square music studio with piano accompaniment after reading Nancy Groce’s Songs of New York.

Alvin Eng holding up his selection, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker

Biting into the beef tibs wrapped in soda bread at Awash Ethiopian restaurant on 6th street after reading Sister Rashida Ismaili’s, Autobiography of the Lower East Side. ˆ(Steve)

Feasting on soy-braised Pork Belly and Beef with Bitter Melon among many other old school Toisan standards at new Chinatown fave, Uncle Lou’s. The perfect now-and-then table to discuss Chinatown and Flushing family memories from book group member Alvin Eng’s own memoir, Our Laundry, Our Town. 

 Daintily drinking tea, eight pinkies up, with Ted Westergaard at the Carlyle to discuss Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

 Picnicking on the grass in Central Park by the Andrew Haswell Green bench as we discussed his remarkable life and shocking death in Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake. (Deborah )

Many years after Wayne Barrett lifted our profile in the pages of theVillage Voice giving us our name, we joined him in his home to discuss his prescient, deeply researched, and incisive profile, Trump, The Deals and the Downfall. Given all the nefarious machinations that Barrett had uncovered for his 1992 study, we thought then in February of 2016 that it was impossible that such a slippery man of Queens would remake himself for Washington. (Janet)

The featured books and our discussions are now part of our own lives and memories.  Yet, not all the memories were positive.

Alex selected Hella Winston’s, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. “We met at a deli in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, and all of us felt very much that we were “the other”.  An uncomfortable dinner – it was also pretty difficult to discuss this book in that setting. We felt conspicuously unwelcome!”

At each of our meetings, it’s as if we arranged our chairs around an oversize book that serves as a table  for a riveting discussion and a sumptuous meal served right on it.  New York City is always the silent partner joining us at the table, and the hero of the story. 

We go around the  table and each of us offers our take on the reading.  We always end with the exuberant Deborah Wye, ever the scholar, who reaches into her satchel for her copious notes taken on each book.  She makes sure our discussion has covered every point.  We order one, sometimes two, desserts with a bunch of spoons.  After dessert we ask the waiter to take a picture of the group.  Then we go our separate ways, having taken one more bite of what might best be called, not the Big Apple but, the Big Onion, with each book revealing a startling new layer of the City’s history, humor, stinkyness and tears.   

As Alex writes, “What I have loved all through this is that our reading reveals layers of New York that are new to me, and that I always learn something unexpected. Our group has only enhanced my love of NYC and my sense of belonging here – happy to be part of a throng of diverse humanity.”

The book group dines overlooking Grand Central Station

Among this throng of diverse humanity in New York there are those who paint and write and sing – and in the process these souls reflect, reorganize and reimagine reality so we can experience it from vantage points other than our own, and then feel the beauty in it all.

There are also those hearty and intrepid souls who risk opening neighborhood restaurants, bringing the flavors of myriad longstanding and new immigrant cultures to our lips the way books bring those worlds to our minds.

Our mission, as Janet Levoff, put it,  “is to love our city, to learn about her continuously, and to enjoy the company of people who cherish her.”

Era after era New York’s tiny apartments squeeze us, elevators pack us in, railroad tenements once made us take a bath in the kitchen, tar beach on tenement rooftops and fire escapes give respite from the heat, basement apartments make us sweat, Central Park carves out a useable wilderness, office cubicles pay our salaries, unscrupulous drivers steal our parking spaces, tin can subways rattle the b-Jesus out of us, and the urban beehive buzzes.  We are hemmed in, pushed around, squeezed out, hassled and harassed, but New Yorkers are sculpted and shaped – individualized – by the tight spaces, the jostling of a human traffic jam.  And we are blessed by the endless possibilities for serendipity with so many people squeezed into so small a space.  It’s like … nuclear fusion.. where small spaces force New Yorkers together, releasing huge amounts of creative energy and always a new entity, a reimagined City.

The books we read are filled with mishaps and tragedies, and a New York continually on the skids,  but  always redeemed by the people – for us, the City is always saved by the characters in the  books, the owners, waiters and waitresses we meet in the restaurants, and our own circle of book group friends who know each other better each time we meet. The BBG has offered us a way to experience this endlessly layered metropolis which James Baldwin, in Another Country – one more book on our fabled list – describes as the “city which the people from heaven made their home.”


Here is our complete list of books, and partial list of restaurants.

BOOKS 2004 – 2023
Subject to repairs & improvements

1. Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow
2. Great Fortune – The Epic of Rockefeller Center – Daniel Okrent (The Rainbow Room)
3. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
4. The Devil’s Playground – James Traub. (Sardis)
5. Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby, Jr. (Last Exit)
6. Two Shakespearean Actors – Richard Nelson
7. Time and Again – Jack Finney (Pete’s Tavern)
8. The Island at the Center of the World – Russell Shorto
9. What I Loved – Siri Hustveldt (Fanelli’s)
10. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
11. Low Life – Luc Sante
12. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
13. East Side Story – Louis Auchincloss (Knickerbocker Club)
14. The Strike that Changed New York – Jerald E. Podair
15. de Kooning – An American Master – Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
16. A Time to be Born – Dawn Powell
17. New York Trilogy– Paul Auster
18. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
19. 740 Park Avenue – Michael Gross (Cosmopolitan Club)
20. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love – Oscar Hijuelos
21. The Prince of the City – Fred Siegel
22. Butterfield 8 – John O’Hara
23. Boss Tweed – Kenneth Ackerman
24. Garlic and Sapphires – Ruth Reichl
25. Bronx Primitive – Kate Simon
26. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints – Dito Montiel
27. Bad Blood– Linda Fairstein
28. A Hazard of New Fortunes – William Dean Howell
29. Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him – Danielle Ganek (Bottino)
30. Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin
31. Unchosen – the Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels – Hella Winston
32. Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerny. (Odeon)
33. Hotel de Dream – Edmund White
34. Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
35. Call it Sleep—Henry Roth
36. The Extra Man – Jonathan Ames
37. The Red Leather Diary – Lily Koppel
38. Julie and Julia – Julie Powell (Chez Herzan)
39. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (Chelsea Hotel/El Quijote)
40. Central Park in the Dark – Marie Winn (Central Park Boathouse)
41. Wall Street—Steve Fraser
42. Crossing the Boulevard—Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan
43. Banished Children of Eve—Peter Quinn
44. Breakfast at Tiffany’s—Truman Capote
45. Brooklyn—Colm Toibin
46. Invisible Man—Ralph Ellison
47. Wrestling with Moses:How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and
Transformed the American City—Anthony Flint (The White Horse Tavern)
48. Strength in What Remains–Tracy Kidder
49. Let the Great World Spin—Colm McCann
50. Man on Wire—Philippe Petit
51. The Beautiful and Damned—F. Scott Fitzgerald (Grand Central Oyster Bar)
52. Coney Island Lost and Found – Charles Denson
53. Diamond Ruby – Joseph Wallace (Foley’s Bar, W. 33)
54. New York—Edward Rutherford (Delmonicos)
55. Super Sad True Love Story—Gary Shytengart (Miss Korea)
56. Whatever It Takes—Paul Tough
57. Just Kids– Patti Smith (El Quixote)
58. Object of Beauty—Steve Martin (Bottino)
59. Mrs. Astor Regrets—Meryl Gordon
60. Puzzle King—Betsy Carter
61. Kafka Was the Rage—Anatole Broyard (Cornelia Street Café)
62. Chinatown Beat—Henry Chang
63. Rules of Civility—Amor Towles (The Algonquin)
64. Boulevard of Dreams—Constance Rosenblum
65. Manhattan ‘45—Jan Morris (Frankie & Johnnies on 45th)
66. The Gods of Gotham –Lyndsay Faye
67. New York at War—Steven H. Jaffe (The River Café)
68. Love, Fiercely – Jean Zimmerman (Robert at the Museum of Art and Design)
69. Under Their Thumb – Bill German (Josie’s)
70. Lowboy – John Wray – (Steak Frites)
71. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America–Sam Roberts
(Michael Jordan’s Steak House)
72. P. Smith, Journalist–PG Wodehouse
73. The Highline, by Josh David & Robert Hammond (La Luncheonette)
74. The Godfather, Mario Puzo. (Umberto’s Cafe)
75. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism,
Freedom, and the Cold War—Serge Guilbaut (The Jane Hotel)
76. Triangle Shirt Waist Fire– David von Drehle (Favela Cubana)
77. The Reluctant Fundamentalist–Moshir Hamid (Masala Wala)
78. L is for Lion: an Italian Bronx Butch Freedom Memoir–Annie Lanzilloto
(Trattoria Spaghetto)
79. The Goon Squad—Jennifer Egan (Café Mogador)
80. Dissident Gardens–Jonathan Lethem OUR 10TH ANNIVERSARY SELECTION!
81. The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt
82. Happy City–Charles Montgomery
83. The New York Stories of Henry James–selected by Colm Toibin (Chez Jaqueline)
84. The Big Oyster–Mark Kurlansky (Grand Central Oyster Bar)
85. Brighton Beach Memoirs–Neil Simon
86. Bonfire of the Vanities–Tom Wolfe (Orsay)
87. Subway Lives—Jim Dwyer
88. 10:04 — Ben Lernor (Jack the Horse Tavern)
89. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York
Richard Zacks (La Pizza Fresca Ristorante)
90. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay– Michael Chabon
91. Up in the Old Hotel–Joseph Mitchell (McSorleys)
92. Man in Profile–Thomas Kunkel (Paris Café)
93. Burr–Gore Vidal (Morris Jumel Mansion)
94. Downtown–Pete Hamill (Pete’s Tavern)
95. Lush Life–Richard Price (Schillers Liquor Bar)
96. Trump, Deals & the Downfall–Wayne Barrett (@ Wayne & Fran Barrett’s)
97. Down these Mean Streets–Piri Thomas (La Fonda Boricua, turned Sapitos!)
98. Jews Without Money– Michael Gold (Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse)
99. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion–Jean H. Baker (Edo Sushi)
100. Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum–Edward T. O’Donnell
(Malai Marke)
101. Seize the Day—Saul Bellow
102. The Poetry of Everyday Life:Storytelling and the Art of Awareness–Steve Zeitlin
(The Purple Yam)
103. Christadora–Tim Murpy (Gnocco)
104. The Letter Writer—Dan Fesperman
105. Bellevue–David Oshinsky (Riverpark)
106. The Gargoyle Hunters–John Freeman Gill (Walkers)
107. Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal–Joseph Alexiou (Runner and Stone)
108. New York 2140– Kim Stanley Robinson (Sabbia)
109. February House–Sherill Tippins (Jack the Horse)
110. Manhattan Beach–Jennifer Egan (Vinegar Hill House)
111. Golden Hill–Francis Spufford (Fraunces Tavern)
112. Our Laundry, Our Town–Alvin Eng (Salam)
113. A Walker in the City–Alfred Kazin (Cornelia Street Cafe)
114. M Train–Patti Smith (Dante Cafe)
115. The Black Hand—Stephan Talty (Café Select)
116. New York: Song of the City –Nancy Groce (Rehearsal Studios, Barbetta)
117. My Year of Rest & Relaxation—Ottessa Moshfegh (Bottino)
118. Vanishing New York—Jeremiah Moss (Bamonte’s)
119. Rats – Robert Sullivan (Dead Rabbit)
120. The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo (Nuyorican Poets Café, w/D. Gallant, Café Cortadito)
121. The Friend—Sigrid Nunez
122. Ninth Street Women—Mary Gabriel (June 2019)
123. Jazz –Toni Morrison (Melba’s)
124. The Police Women’s Detective Bureau—Edward Conlon (Da Nico)
125. My Young Life—Frederic Tuten (12th Street, “old red sauce Italian)
126. Poet in New York—Federico Garcia Lorca
127. Manchild in the Promised Land—Claude Brown (The Grange Barn)
129. New York Burning— Jill Lepore (11 Hanover Greek)
130. The World to Come—Dara Horn
131. Damnation Island – Stacy Horn
132. Deacon King Kong—James McBride
133. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—EL Konigsburg
134. The Autobiography of Malcom X—Alex Haley
135. The Lehman Trilogy—Stefano Massini
136. Red at the Bone—Jacqueline Woodson
137. Behold the Dreamers—Imbolo Mbue
138. Begin Again—Eddie Glaude
139. The Lions of Fifth Avenue—Fiona Davis
140. Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the
Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal—Eric K. Washington
141. Guilded Suffagists: The New York Socialites who Fought
For Women’s Right to Vote—Johanna Neuman
142. Another Country—James Baldwin
143. The Great Mistake—Jonathan Lee (A picnic in the park! By AHG bench)
144. The Barbizon—Pauline Bren (Cos Club)
145. Passing—Nella Larsen (Settapani)
146, When No One is Watching—Alyssa Cole
147. Invisible Child—Andrea Elliott (Walter’s, Fort Greene)
148. Our Laundry, Our Town—ALVIN ENG! (Uncle Lou’s)
149. Save the Village—MICHELE HERMAN! (chez Kuhn & Herman)
150. Secret Identity, a Novel—Alex Segura (Pete’s Tavern)
151. The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker (Nish Nush)
152. Also, a Poet—Ada Calhoun (La Palapa)
153. The Autobiography of the Lower East Side–Rashida Ismaili  (Awash Ethiopian Restaurant)
154. Ladies and Gentlemen: the Bronx is Burning (To be selected)

The Founding Director of City Lore along with guest bloggers find poetry and meaning in nooks and crannies of daily life. 

Steve Zeitlin is the Founding Director of City Lore.


By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.


Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

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