Society library book awards

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  • Warren Wechsler, chair of the New York City Book Awards jury, with Roxane Orgill, co-author of “Jazz Day.” Photo: Karen Smul

  • The award-winning books. Photo: Karen Smul


The New York City Book Awards emphasize storytelling that touches on some current political themes

By Madeleine Thompson

In a cozily furnished room on the second floor of the city’s oldest library, one could easily imagine curling up with a winner of this year’s New York City Book Awards. Last Wednesday, the New York Society Library presented four books with the award, which honors “books of literary quality or historical importance that … evoke the spirit or enhance appreciation of New York City.”

The 2016-2017 winners are Tyler Anbiner’s “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York,” David Oshinsky’s “Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine & Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital,” Roxane Orgill and Francis Vallejo’s “Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph” and Corey Pegues’ “Once a Cop: The Street, The Law, Two Worlds, One Man.”

In their brief acceptance speeches, the authors touched on the writing process and the reasons they felt compelled to bring their stories to life. Ellen Iseman, a trustee of the Society Library and sponsor of the awards, emphasized the importance of storytelling. “When times are as unsettling as they are today, with headlines about chemical warfare and new nuclear missile tests in Asia, getting lost in an intentionally escapist way ... is the best salve one could wish for,” she said. “Good libraries like this one also hold books and periodicals that can provide a truth or close to it, when the notion of alternative facts and fake news has been accepted by millions of people.”

But the books awarded by the Society Library can’t be entirely separated from the current political landscape. “City of Dreams” highlights the contributions of immigrants from Alexander Hamilton to Oscar de la Renta, some of whom would might not have made it here had they attempted to make the journey today. “The theme of the book is basically that immigrants throughout the centuries have not changed very much,” Anbinder said. “People come to the United States for the same reasons, they’re treated as outcasts when they get here, they have to fight for respect, and yet they persevere.”

Oshinsky, too, touched on the politically relevant aspects of “Bellevue,” which chronicles the history of the city’s oldest hospital. “New York City, to its everlasting credit, is the only place where the indigent get medical care free of charge, and Bellevue is the flagship hospital that provides that,” he said. Pegues’s “Once Upon A Cop,” about the author’s rise from teenage drug dealer to deputy inspector in the NYPD, also brings to light problems the city and the country as a whole continue to struggle with.

“Jazz Day,” a beautifully illustrated collection of poems, provides the purest escapism of the four winners. The book was inspired by Art Kane’s famous photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” which features 57 notable jazz musicians, dressed in their Sunday best, on the steps of a Harlem brownstone. “It was 10 o’clock in the morning,” Orgill said of the story behind the picture. “A lovely time to take a photograph, but not for jazz musicians. [Kane] didn’t know if anyone would show.”

In addition to facts and fictions, Pegues reminded the audience why it’s important to find a personal connection with any book. “What I want people to get out of the book is ‘don’t let your past define your future,’” he said. “The kid on the back of that book — you’d never have known that he would be this guy in the front of the book.”

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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