Get Literary: Read These Brooklyn Novels

From Old Classics to Contemporary Books

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
••• A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Brooklyn has a long and respected literary history. It was home to Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Walt Whitman, and is now currently in the midst of a second literary renaissance.  Every fall, Brooklyn pays tribute to its literary presence with the popular Brooklyn Book Festival, where some of the countries most respected writers partake in this festival.

Can't make it to the popular annual Brooklyn Book Festival?

There are many other ways to plan a book themed excursion to Brooklyn. Have a DIY literary visit to Brooklyn, stopping in at the best independent and used bookstores. If shopping for books or attending the festival inspires you to write one of your own novels, pack a notebook or a laptop, order a coffee and grab a table at one of Brooklyn’s many atmospheric coffee shops.

If you're planning a trip to Brooklyn, you can always get inspiration from these fifteen novels. Proving that Brooklyn has been a writer’s muse for decades. From classics that are required reading at many schools to contemporary novels, Brooklyn serves as more than just a backdrop in these books. For those who aren't fans of the novel and prefer poetry or nonfiction, should pick up the poem, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and every nonfiction lover must read A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin.

If you don't care about books, you might want to watch these classic television shows that are set in Brooklyn.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be categorized as a young adult book, readers of all ages will be enthralled with the coming of age story of Francie Nolan, an impoverished girl living in the turn of the century (the book opens in 1912). Published in the 1940s, this classic tale of an Irish immigrant family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, chronicles Francie's life as she turns into a teenager.

Betty Smith's timeless literary treasure is filled with hunger and heartbreak and is truly unforgettable. 

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.

If you offered any character from Last Exit to Brooklyn a cold brew coffee or a kale salad, they'd probably punch you. Before Brooklyn's Waterfront area became a trendy apex of the art world, where Industrial buildings house distilleries and artisanal food markets, it was a gritty, working waterfront. Published in the 1960s, in this groundbreaking novel of postwar Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. writes about a part of life that wasn't often novelized. From stories of alcoholic fathers to young Brooklyn guys getting into fights with men from the Army, these tales of everyday Brooklyn are powerful, as you peek into Brooklyn's darker pre-gentrification past. 

The Chosen by Chaim Potok 

Set in 1940s Williamsburg during the end of World War II, this Chaim Potok novel tells the story of two boys that meet during a baseball game. One is modern Orthodox and the other is hasidic, as Potok explores the world of Jewish identity in Brooklyn during the end of the war, and the years that follow through the friendship between these two young men. The novel, published in the 1960s, is a must-read classic.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

It was hard to choose which Jonathan Lethem book to feature. In fact, it was a coin toss. I was charmed by the unforgettable novel, Motherless Brooklyn, a classic detective novel narrated by Lionel Essrog, an orphan with Tourette's Syndrome set in Brooklyn. The Fortress of Solitude, is a coming of age tale set in the 1970s in Boerum Hill/Downtown Brooklyn. I highly recommend both novels. Although the latter does utilize Brooklyn more within the storytelling of the novel, and the neighborhood impacts the character's growth and development. 

The Outside World by Tova Mirvis

If you've ever strolled the aisles of Pomegranate on Coney Island Avenue or dined at a Kosher Steak House on Avenue J  or walked around Borough Park and wondered about the world of Modern Orthodox Judaism, this novel will answer a lot of questions.

The Outside World focuses on Brooklyn native and Orthodox Tzippy Goldman and her marriage to a secular Jewish man who has become Ultra Orthodox. The book centers on family, community and the importance of religious choices.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall's first novel, published in 1959 and set in 1939, tells the story of a young girl, Selina, an immigrant from Barbados adjusting to her life in Brooklyn. The groudbreaking semi-autobiographical novel is a classic, with its honest depictions of the struggle between traditions, cultures and a new and old world. 

Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn

Want to read about the sex lives of Brooklyn parents? Pick up Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West. Set during a summer on the tree-lined, stroller gridlocked streets of Park Slope, the novel follows the lives of an Oscar winning actress, a sexless mom, a former lesbian, and we haven't even started on the dads--intrigued? If you've devoured Prospect Park West and are hungry for more, check out the followup novel, Motherland, also set in Brooklyn and Wellfleet, Massachusetts. In both novels, Sohn, a Brooklyn native, captures the sexy side of Brooklyn's parenting world. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

If you haven't read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you are missing out. The novel takes place during World War II in 1939, Joe Kavalier  a young magician and refuge from Prague arrives in Brooklyn to live with his cousin Sammy Clay. The story of the two cousins and their foray into the world of comic books, as well as the impact of the war on these two young men, is both absorbing and magical, in this novel that won the Pulitzer in 2001.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

"In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn." This begins the classic novel, Sophie's Choice, that should be required reading for everybody. Set in postwar Brooklyn, in a crumbling Victorian rooming home in Ditmas Park/Prospect Park West, Stingo (the narrator's nickname) meets Nathan and Sophie and gets enmeshed in their lives. I'm not telling you anymore, just go read it.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Maybe you just saw the movie, but the novel is worth a read. Brooklyn, set in the 1950s, is the story of Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey and her new life in America. Set in Ireland and Brooklyn (from the Brooklyn College campus to the residential streets and boarding houses of 1950s Brooklyn) Toibon does a fantastic job capturing life in that era while questioning the relationship between the past and the future, and defining (and redefining) the meaning of home. 

The Sisters Weiss by Naomi Regan

I'll confess, I just took this out of the library, and am just at the start of the novel. However, Brooklyn plays a prominent role in Naomi Regan's The Sisters Weiss, which opens in 1956 in ultra-orthodox Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then moves forward forty years later and then to 2007 in Williamsburg. The novel, which involves a secret and a relationship between two sisters and the role religion plays in their lives. The book is set in Williamsburg and Borough Park, and is a great tale of Orthodox brooklyn and how religious restrictions can influence a person's life and family. Of course, I'm only a few pages in.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

If you think gentrification is a new topic, think again. This novel, published in 1970s, chronicles the lives of Otto and Sophie Bentwood living in Brooklyn in the 1960s. The novel takes place over one weekend as you watch their lives unfold, and Sophie get bitten by a potentially rabid stray cat. It should be required reading for anyone who moved to Brooklyn. 

A Meaningful Life by L.J Davis

Another story of gentrification, published in 1971, this comic novel, written by journalist L. J. Davis, is the story of Lowell Lake, who wakes up one day after his thirtieth birthday to realize that his life is settled and his job isn't temporary. Lowell decides to alleviate these feelings by purchasing a dilapidated mansion in Brooklyn. Too bad for Lowell, Brownstoner didn't exist, as he pours his life and money into restoring the home. The new edition of the novel has a terrific forward by Jonathan Lethem. Fans of dark comedy and Brooklyn real estate will enjoy reading this novel.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Paul Auster, who lives in Brooklyn, but often writes about the Upper West Side/Morningside Heights area, focuses on Brooklyn in his novel, The Brooklyn Follies, where a retired life insurance salesman with a cancer diagnosis comes to Brooklyn to die.  Auster, a master storyteller, sets the novel in Park Slope (Nathan finds a two bedroom garden apartment on 1st street near Prospect Park), and although the narrator's life is bleak, the book is certainly not.  

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

This first novel about the romantic life of writer, Nate Piven, is set in Brooklyn's literary world. If you are missing clicking refresh on Gawker or if you've ever accepted a Tinder date with a Brooklyn writer and wanted to get into his mindset, this book will satiate both of those needs.