The best books on the city at night

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

Who am I?

I first started walking in cities at night in my late teens – mainly London but also the Italian cities I travelled through alone when I went interrailing after leaving school. I discovered that cities have a quite different character at night, and that you cannot know the streets of one intimately if you don’t explore it – safely! – after dark. In my professional career as a scholar and lecturer, I have for decades almost unconsciously been drawn to those writers who themselves discovered, to their horror or delight, that the city at night is a foreign country. The books I’ve listed, fictional or non-fictional, are postcards from this foreign land. 

I wrote...

Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London

By Matthew Beaumont,

Book cover of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London

What is my book about?

“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. Before electricity, the night-time city was a very different place to the one we know today – home to the vagrant and the noctambulant. Matthew Beaumont recounts an alternative history of London by focusing on those of its denizens who surface on the streets when the sun’s down. Nightwalkers represent some of the most revealing guides to the neglected aspects of the city.

In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Beaumont shines a light on the shadowy perambulations of poets, novelists, and thinkers: Chaucer and Shakespeare; William Blake and his ecstatic peregrinations; the opium-addict Thomas De Quincey and his feverish ramblings; and the supreme nightwalker, Charles Dickens. 

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The books I picked & why

Night Walks

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Night Walks

Why did I love 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.

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Night Walks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Charles Dickens describes in Night Walks his time as an insomniac, when he decided to cure himself by walking through London in the small hours, and discovered homelessness, drunkenness and vice on the streets. This collection of essays shows Dickens as one of the greatest visionaries of the city in all its variety and cruelty.

GREAT IDEAS. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them.…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By William Chapman Sharpe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New York Nocturne as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As early as the 1850s, gaslight tempted New Yorkers out into a burgeoning nightlife filled with shopping, dining, and dancing. Electricity later turned the city at night into an even more stunning spectacle of brilliantly lit streets and glittering skyscrapers. The advent of artificial lighting revolutionized the urban night, creating not only new forms of life and leisure, but also new ways of perceiving the nocturnal experience. New York Nocturne is the first book to examine how the art of the gaslit and electrified city evolved, and how representations of nighttime New York expanded the boundaries of modern painting, literature,…

New York: Confidential!

By Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer,

Book cover of New York: Confidential!

Why did I love 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. 

By Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vintage paperback

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

Why did I love 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. 

By John Gay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trivia, Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…

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

Why did I love 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… 

By Iain Sinclair,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New Statesman Book of the Year

London. A city apart. Inimitable. Or so it once seemed.

Spiralling from the outer limits of the Overground to the pinnacle of the Shard, Iain Sinclair encounters a metropolis stretched beyond recognition. The vestiges of secret tunnels, the ghosts of saints and lost poets lie buried by developments, the cycling revolution and Brexit. An electrifying final odyssey, The Last London is an unforgettable vision of the Big Smoke before it disappears into the air of memory.

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