Our Collection

What We Read in 2019

We recently asked Library staff what books they enjoyed the most in 2019. As usual, their repsonses were a varied and interesting lot. Below our staff recommendations, see what Library members said when we asked them the same question in our monthly one-question survey. Finally, have a look at this blog post to see what books were checked out most frequently in 2019. 

Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language | Paul Baker  

Sometimes a serious book can be a whole lot of fun. Such is the case with Paul Baker’s Fabulosa!, a book about the bawdy, lewd, and exuberant slang called Polari that developed among gay men in Great Britain in the first half of the 20th century. If your love life was criminalized or subject to ridicule and threats of violence, how could you go about looking for a boyfriend, or warning your friends of the watchful eyes of the police, without anyone knowing? Borrowing from Yiddish, Italian, Lingua Franca, Romany, and a few American words the GIs left behind in WWII, Polari allowed gay men to identify each other and keep their public conversations private. Baker not only teaches you the words and phrases, but follows the development of the argot, out of theatres and off the docks and into the bars and gathering places gay men frequented. Wild and wicked, Fabulosa! is probably the most fun you can have with a book about linguistics. —Patrick Rayner, Acquisitions Assistant/Circulation Assistant

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants | Robin Wall Kimmerer   

Upend the way you think about the physical and natural world, and what humans’ role may be in it, with this lifegiving book. Dr. Kimmerer is a plant ecologist from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and Braiding Sweetgrass bursts with with science, Native history and knowledge, personal memories, and teaching anecdotes. If that makes it hard to categorize, that’s just right: pull on one strand, and the whole earth comes with it.

Also, Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story is an homage to the remarkable chroniclers of the first age of AIDS (including my beloved Paul Monette) and also a gripping, touching tale of three young people trying to love themselves and others when high school, New York City, and the 1980s are not making it easy. Warning: you’ll want to crank up Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. —Sara Elliott Holliday, Head of Events

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century | Jessica Bruder

Many a potential retiree has nurtured a desire to travel the country’s scenic byways from the cozy confines of an RV. Instagram is rife with glossy dreamscapes of millennial nomads in tricked out vans, yoga mat underfoot and margarita in hand. But Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland takes us someplace else entirely. This engrossing narrative nonfiction book follows a growing wave of Americans who are taking to the roads not from desire but from necessity. Journalist Bruder joins them in parking lots and campgrounds, on the streets (even in Brooklyn), and as a workamper for Amazon’s mobile workforce in the camper van she dubs Halen. Forced into their itinerant lifestyle after losing homes and jobs due to the mortgage crisis and the great recession, these accidental nomads search for work, camaraderie, and if not the American dream, at least hope for a better life. —Carolyn Waters, Head Librarian

I read a lot of books in 2019 that I really enjoyed, across genres. Here are the five I could narrow down: I started with Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. George Washington was an early member of NYSL as well as a slaveowner, and this compelling book describes how Judge, a “favorite” enslaved person in the Washington household, fought for her freedom in the 18th century. If you like reading about 19th-century NYC history, please pick up The Last Pirate of New York: a Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation by Rich Cohen. I can’t even begin to describe the engrossing weirdness of this true tale of murder and detection. Similarly weird in the best way is classic Victorian “sensation novel” The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.  I enjoyed every minute of the twisty, melodramatic plot. Finally, I learned more about two visionary artists in the comprehensive monograph Sphinx: the Life and Art of Leonor Fini by Peter Webb, and the graphic novel Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña. —Mia D’Avanza, Head of Circulation 

Still Life: Adventures inTaxidermy | Melissa Milgrom

2019 was the year I spent reading through natural history nonfiction found on Stack 3. I stumbled upon quite a few gems, including the marine conservation books by Dr. Helen Scales. Most notable though was Melissa Milgrom's investigative book on taxidermy.  In Still Life, taxidermy is taken out of the gruesome contexts of game trophies and brought into the present day. The histories behind the specimens at the American Natural History Museum and the works of Damien Hirst are explored among other famous specimens. Along the way, the reader is introduced to a motley crew of taxidermists, including singers, goths, and businessmen, all equally passionate about taxidermy. I highly recommend Still Life if you are looking for a quirky, engrossing read. —Ashley-Luisa Santangelo, Bibliographic Assistant

The Caregiver | Samuel Park

This 2018 novel touched me in unexpected ways. Mara Alencar is trying to make her way through a tangle of emotional and material obstacles. As an undocumented Brazilian living in southern California, Mara wrestles with what it means to be both a daughter and a caregiver. Inter-sliced with glimpses of Mara's complicated childhood, readers are drawn into an intimate story of how Mara decided to leave her famous (albeit misrepresented) hometown of Copacabana. Like the best storytellers, Samuel Park collapses the space between Mara’s world and your own. The Caregiver infuses geopolitics into an intoxicating page-turner that will make you want to giggle, sweep, and reflect on the time we spend on this earth. —lae sway, Circulation Assistant


Track (series) | Jason Reynolds 

True confession of a children’s and young adult librarian: I rarely read all the books in a series written for children or teens. After reading the first book in a series I usually move on to different books, authors, and genres, to develop broad knowledge of our collection. Occasionally, however, a series opener hooks me and demands that I continue reading the rest of the series. 2019 brought me to the compelling stories Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu the four tales in the Track series by Jason Reynolds, the 2020-21 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. A demanding and singular coach is a common thread that stitches together the stories of four fast runners—from vastly different backgrounds—new to an elite urban track team. While each riveting tale of the unique teammates, their struggles, and their growing wisdom, stands alone, the reader of the entire series is in for a treat. I highly recommend the audio editions of these books, as the narration by Guy Lockard (Ghost, Sunny, and Lu) and Heather Alicia Simms (Patina) is stellar, bringing each character and their story to life. —Randi Levy, Head of the Children’s Library

Dig | A.S. King

Prior to the announcement of the Youth Media Awards, my YA book group hosts a Mock Awards evening where we gather to predict what the ALA committees might pick as top reads. My personal pick for the 2020 Printz Award is A.S. King’s Dig. It’s not an easy read, but a very necessary one that revolves around five teens and their complicated relationship with regards to the racism, patriarchy, and white privilege deeply entrenched in their lives. Watching the live stream of the awards online, I was thrilled to learn that this engrossing novel was bestowed the top prize!

In the spring, we hold a Printz Pizza Party that focuses upon a discussion of what titles were actually chosen by the committee. Last year, after Mary McCoy’s I, Claudia took home a surprise Printz Honor, YA libraries rushed to add it to their shelves. This ingenious retelling of Robert Graves's 1961 novel I, Claudius follows an unreliable narrator through the history, politics, and power at her exclusive prep school. Both of these reads are deliciously deep (with surprisingly sharp wit mixed in) and I highly recommend that you check them out. —Susan Vincent Molinaro, Children’s and Young Adult Librarian

One Dead Spy | Nathan Hale 

One of my favorite reads from 2019 was this children’s graphic novel that focuses on the life of famed Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale (who, yes, shares a name with the book’s author). Hale —the author—does a fantastic job of keeping history fun while not falling into the trap of romanticism. Indeed, it seems to me that the study of history is uniquely suited for the graphic novel format: sure, life doesn’t unfold in a series of panels, but it does seem at times to deserve more than mere words on a page. Hale’s book is well-researched, engaging, even thrilling: I heartily recommend it to both children and adults alike. —Pete Fey, Assistant Children's and Young Adult Librarian


In our January newsletter, we asked Library members "What's the best book you read in 2019 (regardless of when it was published)?" The 67 books submitted as answers are listed below. Books with more than one vote are indicated by the number of votes they received in parentheses. Thank your for your responses. 


  • Jesmyn Ward | Salvage the Bones
  • Gail Honeyman | Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
  • John Williams | Augustus
  • Ann Patchett | The Dutch House
  • Richard Powers | The Overstory (2)
  • Andrew Sean Greer | Less
  • Theodore Dreiser | Sister Carrie (2)
  • Leo Tolstoy | War and Peace
  • Min Jin Lee | Pachinko (2)
  • Ocean Vuong | On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • Chloe Aridjis | Sea Monsters
  • Kate Atkinson | Behind the Scenes at the Museum
  • Jack Finney | Time and Again
  • Vasilii Grossman | Life and Fate
  • J.R.R. Tolkien | The Lord of the Rings (a reread)
  • Julie Orringer | The Flight Portfolio
  • Delia Owens | Where the Crawdads Sing
  • Leo Tolstoy | Anna Karenina (2, one member noting this was the “3rd time” reading it)
  • Ayelet Gundar-Goshen | The Liar
  • George Saunders | Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Elizabeth Strout | Olive, Again (3)
  • A.S. King | Dig
  • Colson Whitehead | Nickel Boys
  • Wallace Stegner | The Angle of Repose
  • Julia Phillips | Disappearing Earth
  • Anna Burns | Milkman
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis | Tales for a Stormy Night: the Collected Crime Stories
  • Rachel Kadish | The Weight of Ink
  • Donna Tartt | The Secret History
  • Ben Lerner | The Topeka School
  • Madeline Miller | Circe
  • Kurt Vonnegut | Slaughterhouse Five
  • Ben Fountain | Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Michael Ondaatje | Warlight
  • Joe Wilkins | Fall Back Down When I Die
  • Dominic Smith | The Electric Hotel
  • Philip Roth | Operation Shylock: A Confession


  • Siddhartha Mukherjee | The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer
  • Roger Scruton | Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged
  • Stefan Zweig | The World of Yesterday
  • Robert Macfarlane | Underland: A Deep Time Journey
  • Russell Shorto | Revolution Song: a Story of American Freedom
  • Norman Mailer | Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery
  • David McCullough | The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
  • Henry David Thoreau | Walden
  • Rachel Maddow | Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
  • Michelle Obama | Becoming (“I read it twice!”)
  • Patrick Radden Keefe | Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (3)
  • NOT Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey
  • Lynne Olsen | Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network against Hitler (2)
  • Daniel Kahneman | Thinking Fast and Slow
  • Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence | The Elephant Whisperer: Learning About Life, Loyalty and Freedom from a Remarkable Herd of Elephants 
  • Robert A. Caro | Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
  • J.D. Vance | Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
  • Susan Orlean | The Library Book
  • Mary Gabriel | Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art
  • Andrew S. Curran | Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
  • David Sedaris | Calypso
  • Ben MacIntyre | The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
  • Banine | Days in the Caucasus
  • Esmé Weijun Wang | The Collected Schizophrenias
  • Diana Athill | Yesterday Morning
  • Bill Hayes | Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me
  • Sarah Smarsh | Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
  • The Noël Coward Diaries (Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley, eds.)
  • Leo Damrosch | The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
  • Tara Westover | Educated: a Memoir