Fascinating and Frustrating: Should You Read “Only in New York” by Sam Roberts?

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Only in New York by Sam Roberts was chosen as January’s pick for the NYC Nerds Book Club. But was it a good read? Find out below!

Only in New York is the anthology of the eponymous podcast hosted by Sam Roberts of the New York Times. Although each topic is only a few pages long, Roberts dives deep into the people, history, and quirks that make New York City fascinating, frustrating, and irrepressible. (I’m not being lazy; the sub-title actually sums up the city pretty well.)

Just like how you shouldn’t get a chopped cheese sandwich before you try New York pizza, this book shouldn’t be your introduction to New York. I’m not saying this isn’t a worthwhile read, but it’s very much a book that is best understood by locals. The subjects of this book go beyond, let’s say, the history of the construction of the Empire State Building or why the Statue of Liberty is green; instead, it answers the questions you might have if you have lived here for a while, like do we have enough room in our cemeteries to bury everybody in NYC and why do restaurants at 206 East 63rd Street keep going under. (The short answers are no and because it’s cursed.) 

Someone unfamiliar with New York may not get much out of this, but as a New Yorker, I felt vindicated as I read about the origins of Albany corruption and relived the blizzard of 2006, one of the city’s worst snowstorms on record. It was like I was having a conversation with a slightly cheesy but knowledgable uncle who has had a front row ticket to every major event that has happened in NYC over the last half century. Which is probably because Roberts has had that. As he points out (more than once), Roberts’ more-than-forty-year career covering NYC as a journalist actually amounts to ten percent of the city’s 400-year history. 

That being said, was this the best manner to display his work for the Only in New York podcast? I’m on the fence. While I loved the format of short essays, it got repetitive to read some of the same lines from essay to essay, like that Albert Shanker nuclear warhead joke. (It wasn’t funny the first time and my eyes rolled to the back of my head by the fifth time.) This repetition probably is isn’t as pronounced when you’re listening to a weekly podcast, but in a book, it gets stale quickly.

Another thing that is a little stale about Only in New York is its ‘New Yorkers’ section. Out of all the amazing people who have lived in and impacted the city over the years, Roberts only found one woman worth noting, or at least worth sticking in the book? I would be shocked if over his decades of reporting Roberts hasn’t encountered several other fascinating New York women. While it would be idealistic to expect 50-50 representation, noting solely one woman seems tokenizing.

My last qualm with Only in New York is the way it ended. I’m all for Roberts sharing his personal history, as he must have seen some ish as a lifelong New Yorker. However, most of the stories he chose for the ‘My New York’ section were weak and uninteresting, and they didn’t give me much insight on living in New York. For instance, I would have nixed the passive-aggressive essay about his niece Kate and I would have tied the story about his wife’s heart attack scare to other New Yorkers’ experiences. And as proud as I am to claim that Barack Obama once lived in New York City, the essay titled “Obama’s New York” was a mess. That article, like that entire section, didn’t feel New York enough, making it a disappointing way to end the book.

Overall, I think there is some worth, particularly for locals, to read Only in New York. It’ll introduce you to new stories, characters, and perspectives about the city that you might not have encountered before. But most of all, it will make you nostalgic the Metro Section of the New York Times, where local stories with whimsical curiosity and decent storytelling were more common place.

Announcement: The February 2022 pick for the NYC Nerds Book Club is… The Street by Ann Petry. You should be able to get The Street anywhere books are sold, but I do get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you purchase the book using this affiliate link.

Before you go, if you like what I do here at Shiloh in the City and want to continue getting to know New York’s history, culture, and things to do with me, sign up for my email list and follow me on social media. Thanks for reading!

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