New York Times reporter Sam Roberts makes it clear that A History of New York in 101 Objects is not the history of New York City, but his history of New York City, shaped by a 50-year career of reporting on the area. Inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project of the British Museum and the BBC, Roberts established criteria for selection that he describes as highly subjective but not arbitrary. Objects could not be much larger than a breadbox (a criterion he often ignores), could not be a person, and had to still physically exist in some form. Most importantly, objects had to illustrate a transformative moment in New York’s past.
The resulting history is charming, idiosyncratic and remarkably comprehensive. Roberts begins with a piece of the rock on which Manhattan is built and ends with a masonry Madonna that survived Hurricane Sandy. Some of the objects and their stories are predictable: the letter documenting the “sale” of Manhattan to the Dutch, the New York Public Library’s lions, a subway token. Many are surprising, such as the impact of the mechanized cotton picker on northern cities.
The format of A History of New York in 101 Objects is deceptive. While it is easy to dip in and out at random, Roberts tells a story that is not merely episodic and not solely about New York. The book could alternately be titled A History of the United States in One City.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers