Insomniac City

Recommendation: It’s beautiful

Where to read: This is either summer holiday or winter cabin reading

Read with: Earl Grey

In brief: As above, it’s beautiful – a touching work about falling in love with New York and with your neighbour


New York, mid-July, the train from Smorgasburg to Coney Island, a whimsical jaunt –  I was listening to a podcast the name of which I don’t remember, featuring an interview with a man by the name of Bill Hayes. By the time I’d reached the beach, I was hiding my eyes behind my sunglasses in a vain attempt to hide my tears from my fellow passengers.

He talked about a book he  had written called Insomniac City, part love letter to New York, part prose poetic elegy for the late great Oliver Sacks. It was a beautiful, moving 45 minutes, perhaps more poignant because I was about half done falling in love with the city myself. Then the podcast was done and the boardwalk was done and it was on the train back to Broadway.

About eight months later I wandered into a small bookshop in Surry Hills Sydney Australia, in the sleepy afternoon of another 32 degree day, and couldn’t help myself. A couple of months later, in the fall, I finally meandered through it, taking time over rainy nights and weekend mornings with cups of tea.

There is a wonderful anecdote towards the end of the book – Hayes takes his two nieces to an exhibition at the Met. The elder of the two is absorbed by the photography, while the younger wanders through Turner, Van Gough and Titian. Both fall in love, one with an image which renders her speechless and the other with a Monet (waterlilies of course). He tells them that great works of art, or music or poetry, can be acquired and can become theirs – part of them, perhaps more love than possession. Spending time, savouring small faults, noticing details a more casual acquaintance never would. He might have said the same of his relationship with his city.

There’s a luminous tenderness in his description of New York and its inhabitants, in particular and most obviously Sacks. Eccentricities, oddities and touchingly private moments are recounted with humour and care and respect. In the end, you mourn a love affair as much as the loss of one of the great public intellectuals.

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