"A room without books is like a body without a soul."
What Stacks Up: A Short-Term Exhibition of Favorite Books
We recently asked Library members and staff what they consider to be their absolute all-time favorite book, the one they look forward to revisiting again and again. The books they chose are featured in What Stacks Up: Favorite Books, our current exhibition in the Peluso Family Exhibition Gallery. You may be surprised—and inspired—by what you see.
The books on display, with reader comments, are listed below. Circulating copies are available in the Library’s collection to check out or place on hold during your next visit.
What Stacks Up is open to the public September 6 – October 7. You can also view the full gallery of titles and covers on City Readers.
Louise Tanner (1922-2000) | Miss Bannister’s Girls
I first read Miss Bannister’s Girls in the 70s when the New York world of a fictional (well, sort of!) private girls school and the life stories of its various denizens was only twenty or thirty years in the rear-view mirror. Since then, as a lifelong New Yorker, I have reread it every five or ten years, marveling at its acerbic wit, sharp eye for detail, and hilarious but touching biographies of the “girls.”
It is a great, hidden gem of a New York world that is not really gone. It is suitable for young adults, but only we older folk will get all the humorous allusions! —CAROLINE BERRY
Don Marquis (1878-1937) | The Lives and Times of Archy & Mehitabel
My father introduced me to this book many years ago—the concept of a book written in free verse on a typewriter by a literary male cockroach about himself and his friend, a savvy female alley cat, was too good to resist. And I return to the book again and again for humor and wisdom, as well as some history of the early 20th century and the challenge of reading Archy’s free verse! —ELIZABETH DOBELL
Kent Haruf (1943-2014) | Eventide
I love Kent Haruf. Any of his books. Beautiful writing with serious topics, human, serious. Particularly Eventide. I regret he died before writing more! —EMILY DUNLAP
John McPhee (1931-) | The Pine Barrens
As an unabashed New Jerseyan, my pick is John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens, one of the finest books on the Garden State. The Library’s 1968 first edition also has a cover that invites the reader in, showcasing the deep green pine forest against a bright blue sky, one of the region’s ubiquitous turtles (maybe an Eastern mud turtle?), and a groovy beetle of the mechanical kind, against a motif of those namesake trees. —CAROLYN WATERS, Head Librarian
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) | Till We Have Faces (Drawings by Fritz Eichenberg)
Orual, our first-person narrator and the queen of a small ancient kingdom, struggles to the brink of…what? Lewis’ only real novel, utterly uncharacteristic of his work and routinely misconstrued by both scholars and devoted readers alike, it is the work he thought his best. —JAMES COMO
Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973) | That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Translated from the Italian by William Weaver)
Although Gadda is regarded as one of the great Italian writers of the 20th century and That Awful Mess has been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, I’ve come across few readers who’ve heard of Gadda and even fewer who have actually read his most notable novel. I return to the book every year or so and always seem to find new elements to admire. Cast teasingly as a story of a police detective investigating a murder at a Roman apartment building, the narrative is extravagantly styled and wildly digressive and may seem quite daunting.
But readers who’ve managed the much larger labyrinths of Joyce, Proust and Musil should be up for the challenge. This endlessly expansive, artfully rambling tale is funny, bizarre and philosophic—a feast of language, incident and character. —RONALD DE FEO
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) | Austerlitz
Breathtaking visuals lead one to experience what he has experienced in full, mysterious detail. —GAIL MARKS
Judi Barrett (1941-) | Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Drawings by Ron Barrett)
My favorite book has not changed since age 3, when I first discovered Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I love that as a children’s librarian I get to introduce future generations to this book, especially when I read it during the Wacky Weather storytime. It is followed by a craft in which we pick the foods we would want to come down from the sky, if we lived in the land of Chewandswallow. —SUSAN VINCENT MOLINARO, Children’s and Young Adult Librarian
G.B. Edwards (1899-1976) | The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
A masterwork by a writer who left only this novel. It was introduced by John Fowles back in the 80’s and has been in and out of print since then. It’s the life story of a man living on the Channel Islands spanning the two world wars. The voice is inimitable and unforgettable. —BETH GUTCHEON
Violette Leduc (1907-1972) | Mad in Pursuit (Translated from the French by Derek Coltman)
French novelist Violette Leduc authored two massive memoirs, La Bâtarde (French edition; English translation) and La Folie en tête, or Mad in Pursuit. While La Bâtarde is the more well-known, Mad in Pursuit is my favorite. It’s the frenzied account of Leduc’s time working alongside writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, and Genet in postwar France, while constantly battling stifling self-doubt. —KATIE FRICAS, Circulation Assistant/Events Assistant
E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015) | Ragtime
Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) | Singing Family of the Cumberlands (Illustrated by Maurice Sendak)
Singing Family is a memoir of folk singer Jean Ritchie’s own family—she was the youngest of fourteen, born in 1922—and of life in and around her Viper, Kentucky home in the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Ritchie published this book when she was 33, already credited in the world of “serious” folk music as a sort of living memory of the songs that had been sung in Appalachia since the first British settlers arrived.
It includes lyrics and music for many of her best-known songs. The drawings are almost heartbreakingly lovely— no surprise since this is one of the first books illustrated by Maurice Sendak before he began writing and illustrating his own work in 1956.
I grew up with this book. I loved it so much that when I worked at WBAI radio in the 1970s I produced a complete reading of it for “Continued Tomorrow,” and recorded an interview with Ms. Ritchie in her Port Jefferson, New York, home. She let me hold her dulcimer. —LORRAINE BODGER
Peter Wohlleben (1964- ) | The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World
If one of the things books can do is change your perception of the world around you, this does it. —JANE CHIRURG
E.B. White (1899-1985) | Charlotte’s Web
Charlotte’s Web (and the other children’s books by E.B. White) are enduring favorites. Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! is a wonderful accompaniment to all White’s writing. —MARCIA SCHONZEIT
Dodie Smith (1896-1990) | I Capture the Castle
I Capture the Castle is a wonderful coming-of-age tale that is just as fresh now as it was in the 1930s. No matter how old or young you are, and despite the changing times, the themes of love, family, and growingup never change. This is the kind of book you can re-read at all times in your life and instantly re-live. —STEPHANIE MERCHANT, Circulation Assistant
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) | Lolita
While it is a VERY well-known book (probably for all the wrong reasons), it is not widely read these days. It is a beautiful story of love and loss and the pain of great ardor. —MARIA DERING
Not the greatest novel I’ve read but the one closest to my heart, this sublime academic comedy not only kept me sane during graduate school but has remained, in a half-century of re-readings, as fresh and hilarious as ever. —CHRISTOPHER PORTERFIELD
Rumer Godden (1907-1998) | An Episode of Sparrows
For showing us what the poor box is for; for the sometimes necessary happy ending. —EVELYN FRIEDMAN
Pope Brock | Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam
Charlatan is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” stories from American history. It has an intense rivalry, an outrageous protagonist, and a lot of goats. —MIA D’AVANZA, Head of Circulation
A beautiful collection of short stories that vividly explore the immigrant experience in America. —LAURIN GROLLMAN
Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942) | Gowns by Roberta
Pick one novel by Alice Duer Miller! Gowns by Roberta? Manslaughter? The Reluctant Duchess? I like to see them all in place on your fiction shelves. —ELIZABETH MATSON
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) | War and Peace
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) | The Brothers Karamazov (Pevear/Volokhonsky translation; Constance Garnett translation; also available as an ebook)
The Brothers Karamazov, which I first read some fifty years ago, is my favorite book. It was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s last great novel, of a family consisting of a father, his three sons and their illegitimate half-brother—the story of their individual struggles between good and evil. —ROMANO PELUSO
Richard Adams (1920-2016) | Watership Down (Illustrated by Aldo Galli)
I have loved Watership Down since middle school. It was enormously popular when it first came out, but to me it is still a classic. Although I’m not usually one to enjoy anthropomorphizing animals, this book touched me to the core, and still does. —LINDA OGDEN-WOLGEMUTH
E.L. Konigsburg (1930-2013) | From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
This all-time favorite comes from childhood. I always imagined myself sneaking off and taking the train into NYC to have an adventure—and I still want to spend the night in the Met in one of those glorious beds! —LINDA OGDEN-WOLGEMUTH
Andrea Wulf (1972-) | The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (also available as an ebook)
Truly a beautiful book about a giant of the 19th century. I swam in the Humboldt Current and marveled at this genius who saw all things connected, even me and the ocean. —DIANE FULLER
Bryce Courtenay (1933-2012) | The Power of One
Set in South Africa in the 1940s, The Power of One follows its young subject, Peekay, first as a five-year-old learning survival techniques at a school of Boer studentswhere he was the only British boarder, next as a teenage amateur boxer acquiring legendary status among the native Africans, and finally as a young man working in a copper mine to earn tuition to further his education.
His early friends along the way include his rooster, Grandpa Chook, “the toughest damn chicken in the world,” and Doc, an old German music teacher and botanist whose poignant philosophies run counter to those of Peekay’s mother and her Apostolic Faith Mission.
Peekay’s compassionate nature, despite the world of cruel racism in which he has grown up, and his determination to realize his dreams make an inspiring and often humorous story of resilience that will leave the reader remembering these characters for years to come. —CATHY MCGOWAN, Circulation Librarian
I grew up in a small Southern town, so when I was a child Harriet’s life in the big city was as fascinating and foreign to me as that of Pippi Longstocking or Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the depth and nuance of this coming-of-age novel. It resonates with me still and it is a book I go back to when I need the comfort of an old friend.
With a Manhattan-dwelling school-age daughter of my own, I also connect with it on new levels now—for example, the scene when Harriet says goodbye to Ole Golly, her beloved nanny, is all the more heartbreaking since I’ve seen firsthand the bond between my city child and her first caregiver. The book was quietly revolutionary in its time and is relevant and meaningful still. I can’t wait to share it with my daughter. —MEREDITH L. STRAUSS
Betty MacDonald (1908-1958) | Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm (Pictures by Maurice Sendak)
It’s a really good book. I like it because a lot of things happen that can’t happen in real life. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle cures children of bad habits. The book makes me feel happy. She’s magical. I love her. — FELICITY STRAUSS (member, age 7)
Susan Hill (1942-) | Howards End Is On the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
I enjoyed this as much for the content as for the fact that it inspired me to begin reading all the books I’ve had on my bookshelves for years (decades!) and have been “intending” to get to…
Jonathan Harr (1948-) | A Civil Action
This compelling book has so many interesting elements: the search for the causal link between the pollution and the cancer cluster; the financial risks taken by the attorney representing the victims; the trial tactics employed by the defendant’s attorney; and the victims’ reaction to the verdict. Yes, I’m a lawyer, but this is a book that anyone would enjoy. —SARA WERDER
Philip Pullman (1946-) | The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials: Book I
This fast-paced and exciting story blurs the line between our world and the world of magic as the fates of both hang in the balance. After a disappointing film adaptation a decade ago, this book deserves a second wind. —ALEXANDER BOLESTA, Circulation Assistant
Hector Henry Malot (1830-1907) Nobody’s Girl (Translated by Florence Crewe Jones)
One of my childhood favorites is Nobody’s Girl. It made a profound impression on me and made me appreciate my family and what I had. —LINNEA SAVAPOULAS, Circulation Assistant
Robert McCloskey (1914-2003) | Make Way for Ducklings
I’ve had a wonderful time thinking about my favorite book. At first, of course, I went through the usuals: Pride and Prejudice, probably the first “grown up book” I fell in love with. Or Death Comes for Archbishop. Or Nobody’s Fool or other Richard Russo books I love.
But really my favorite book of all time is…Make Way for Ducklings. I was obsessed by it as a child and one of the truly electric moments of my life (and I’ve had some pretty electric moments!) was standing, at six years old, holding my mother’s hand in the Boston Public Garden and watching the Swan Boat arrive, just as it did in the book. It was my first trip to New England (from Louisiana) and all I wanted to do was to see the Swan Boat.
What I love most about Make Way for Ducklings is the triumph of faith and trust in the goodness of people’s hearts. And, of course, that divine policeman. —SUSAN BUCKLEY
This book bridges the gap between cultures from Nazi Germany to present-day New York City. It demonstrates how meaningful relationships in the past, music, and promises kept can make lives whole and meaningful again. —MERCEDES A. YOUMAN
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) | Collected Dog Stories
I have two books I want to recommend that I found in the last ten years and have returned to several times. I discovered both in the obscure stack 11. Being able to roam the open stacks is one of the gifts the NYSL provides.
Collected Dog Stories was just sitting there in Stack 11 waiting for me to check it out. It appears to be in its original binding. Of the fourteen stories and poems in this volume, the one I remember most fondly is “Four-Feet.”
I have done mostly what most men do,And pushed it out of my mind;But I can’t forget, if I wanted to,Four-Feet trotting behind.Day after day, the whole day through—Wherever my road inclined—Four feet said, “I am coming with you!”And trotted along behind.Now I must go by some other round,—Which I shall never find—Somewhere that does not carry the soundOf Four-Feet trotting behind.”
The illustrations are marvelous. —REBECCA O. MORROW
Elizabeth Von Arnim (1866-1941) | All the Dogs of My Life
In Stack 11 I found All the Dogs of my Life. It is a memoir which opens like this:
I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs. In my day and turn having been each of the above,—except that instead of husbands I was wives,—I know what I am talking about, and am well acquainted with the ups and downs, the daily ups and downs, the sometimes almost hourly ones in the thin-skinned, which seem inevitably to accompany human loves.Dogs are free from these fluctuations. Once they love, they love steadily, unchangingly, till their last breath.That is how I like to be loved.Therefore I will write of dogs.
What a hook.
And so wonderfully written that I did a little research and found the author wrote under other names, and was the writer Elizabeth Von Arnim, whose The Enchanted April and Mr. Skeffington are well known and were both made into excellent movies. Great photos in this memoir. —REBECCA O. MORROW