Sunday, February 2, 2014

"The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood," by Roger Rosenblatt

I first started reading Roger Rosenblatt’s essays, commentaries, and reviews many, many years ago when I still read The New Republic, before it became too conservative for me. When he left that magazine, I wrote him a note of thanks and appreciation for his wonderful writing over the years, and he was kind enough to write a friendly note thanking me for mine. I treasured that note for many years, although I must admit I no longer know where it is, or even if I still have it. After that, I only saw his work occasionally, although I understand he has been a commentator on TV. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I read “Making Toast,” his painful but beautifully written memoir about his adult daughter’s death and about how the family pulled together to cope. He and his wife moved in with his son-in-law to help take care of their young grandchildren. Now fast forward again, to December 2013, when I was Christmas shopping in one of my favorite independent bookstores, Books, Inc., in San Francisco. One of the people working there noticed I was buying a couple of books about New York, and recommended Rosenblatt’s new book, “The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), which she raved about. We started talking about Rosenblatt, and I told her my story about the note; such conversations are one of the pleasures of shopping in independent bookstores. So I bought the book and read it. The premise of the book is that the author takes a walk around today’s New York, remembering his childhood there, and in particular how he used to imagine himself a detective back then. This organizing principle allows Rosenblatt to observe various buildings and areas in present-day New York, meanwhile remembering the past and reflecting on the history and changes. The result is sometimes endearing, often informative, and, truth be told, sometimes a bit confusing and even tedious as he jumps from topic to topic. He includes references to history, philosophy, literature, his own life events, and more. This book will appeal to those who have appreciated Rosenblatt’s work through the years, as well as to dedicated long time New Yorkers. For others, it will perhaps be less engaging. I have to note, though, that despite this last remark, I found plenty to like in the book, and continue in admiration of this thinker/writer/critic.

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