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I’m packing. I’m leaving the apartment building that’s been my home for five years for a free townhouse three blocks away. After a few months there, we plan to move to New York City. A new journey begins, and it starts by boxing up my books. Sometimes packing is monotonous, but sometimes a cover made me pause. This time, two – Alexander Hamilton: A Life, by William Stern Randall and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto.

I don’t read many biographies, but the book came free, and I had long been curious about Hamilton. Turns out he lived in my Albany neighborhood. He married a local girl – I could walk to her family’s mansion (he also cheated with her sister, but I’ll leave that to the book). They lived locally too, with his law practice down the street. He strolled through the space that is now Washington Park. I walk through the park almost daily.

While reading the book I imagining the horses and cravats, the creation of a nation, and my footsteps in theirs. A handful of brownstones in my neighborhood still date to then, same with the layout of streets. I wonder how familiar the city would look to him today. I loved the book because Hamilton is such a brilliant yet tragic American figure. I loved it even more because the book made me a traveler in my own neighborhood, seeing the streets with new eyes. (A caveat: some say Randall stretched the truth too far in this book. Other Hamilton biographies have better reviews. But again, the book was free.).

The Island at the Center of the World
covers the early history of New York City – specifically, the development from New Amsterdam into a world capital through a handful of decisive colonial choices.

The first page placed the author, and the reader, in the state library on Madison Avenue. In good weather I run the giant steps outside the archivists’ offices. The author describes paging through rare documents recently translated from the Old Dutch. From those translations he plucked the story of a rising star in the new Colony and his political battles. It’s an exemplary piece of historical genre writing.

The author sprinkles the book with tidbits that stuck in my head. The young hero bought land to farm north of Manhattan. In the old language a young gentleman is a Jonker. Hence Yonkers, the town immediately north of Manhattan. He describes the rivers that ran through what is now Upper Manhattan and the swamps of the Bronx.

Every time I take the train south to the city I look at the office parks, highways and apartment buildings, and imagine the homesteads that once stood.

This is why I love reading books with such strong senses of place. They offer new contexts for viewing a small slice of the world. It’s why I travel – it’s why I read.

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