Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Michael Sorkin’s “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan”

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan is a book by Michael Sorkin, an architect and author whose other work includes the funny and insightful All Over the Map. Structured around the author’s walk through Greenwich Village from his apartment to his office – the titular twenty minutes – it would seem at first glance to be a potentially boring and myopic book. The table of contents seems to further suggest this, with chapter titles as inspiring as “The Stairs,” “The Stoop,” and “145 Hudson Street.” But this is Sorkin. Just as with All Over the Map, Twenty Minutes is a funny, insightful, and all-around impressive book that outlines the social fabric of a part of New York and traces changes in it and the economic dynamics that underlie it over time.

The personal perspective is certainly there. The chapter on stairs beings with and centers on the stairwell in Sorkin’s building and the occasional fights he has had with neighbors and the super over trash, peeling paint, and other aspects of urban co-habitation. It also deals with the more pleasant social interaction that those stairs has fostered over the years. “The Stoop” contains similar anecdotes, but from the other side of the front door. So do the rest of the chapters in ever-broadening scale.

But the chapter on stairs also deals with the history of stairwells, the evolution of the social importance of living up- or downstairs in a building, the architectural role of stairs today (in many buildings hidden away and used almost exclusively as fire exits when elevators don’t work), and more. The entire book follows this model. Beginning in Sorkin’s own everyday experiences, it broadens the perspective to encompass historical overviews, discussions about the architecture of a feature or place, and cultural and social critiques of uses of urban space.

Aside from its historical and local perspectives, this book is perhaps all the more interesting from the perspective of this blog in that, although written in prose English, it is pretty visual in its perspective.

That said, it is difficult not to grimace at the writing when Sorkin’s tone – which at times he admits himself – turns a bit too entitled and petulant. But that is perhaps a small critique given what the book offers. What the reader who sticks with the book to the end ultimately winds up with is a wealth of information – formal and informal – about Sorkin’s life, about life in New York City over the past fifteen years, and about life in cities over a far longer span of time.

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