The best books on the city at night

Matthew Beaumont Author Of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London
By Matthew Beaumont

The Books I Picked & Why

Night Walks

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of Night Walks

Why this book?

Dickens wrote this essay, which is one of his very best pieces of non-fictional writing, at a period when he was undergoing something of a crisis, largely because of the breakdown of his marriage. It describes a walk he took at night through the streets of London, though in fact it is probably a composite of many nocturnal strolls he took in the late 1850s. Although the piece is sharpened with Dickens’s characteristic spirit of satire, it is remarkable for the sympathetic warmth with which it sketches those who, in contrast to Dickens himself, have no choice but to inhabit the city at night – the lost, the lonely, the homeless. Movingly, he finds a sense of community in these isolated individuals who live on the margins of society.


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New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950

By William Chapman Sharpe

Book cover of New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950

Why this book?

This richly illustrated account of the century in which Manhattan was the preeminent metropolitan city at night is written by a scholar I admire enormously, who has become a friend since I first read this book. Sharpe has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art and literature of the modern city, and New York Nocturne is in consequence a treasure trove of cultural-historical information. But it is also beautifully written. It reads not only the paintings, photographs, poems, and novels about New York with sensitivity and insight, but the sometimes glamorous, sometimes painfully arduous lives of those who lived in it. 


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New York: Confidential!

By Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer

Book cover of New York: Confidential!

Why this book?

The cover is what I most love about this book, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop. In my edition, “The Big City After Dark" is emblazoned in large yellow letters across the top. Beneath it, there’s a deliciously louche illustration of two people standing against the backdrop of Manhattan at night. One is a man in a trilby hat and a cheap brown suit. The other is a blonde woman in cinched black dress and pearls, twirling her pearl necklace and looking alluring. Both appear to know a thing or two about New York’s seediest hangouts. This is a gripping noir guidebook to the twentieth century’s most exciting nighttime city, written as if it’s pulp fiction. 


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Trivia, Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London

By John Gay

Book cover of Trivia, Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London

Why this book?

This brilliantly funny poem, written in heroic couplets, is a satirical celebration of the teeming streets of London in the early eighteenth century, when this imperial city’s pretensions to order were constantly threatened by the chaos of an expanding, and highly mobile, population. It is an instruction manual for survival – "Through Winter Streets to steer your course aright, / How to walk clean by Day, and safe by Night" – but also a colourful cityscape comparable to the paintings produced by William Hogarth at roughly the same time. It offers a highly atmospheric description of London at night in one of its sections. 


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The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City

By Iain Sinclair

Book cover of The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City

Why this book?

Iain Sinclair is London’s finest London poet, even though he hasn’t published poetry for decades, and The Last London is his elegy to a lost London – a London that is being buried beneath the concrete, glass, and steel of private housing developments. As ever, Sinclair conducts his archaeological excursions into the city and its forgotten precincts by tramping its streets relentlessly – in this book, principally after dark. He records his observations and reconstructs his encounters with others in a hypnotic, poetic prose. Here is a city fading into the night because it is erasing its history… 


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