Writing on the wall

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Subway readers, prepare for a new accessory. Last week, “Brooklyn Was Mine,” a collection of essays by local literati — including Jonathan Lethem, Phillip Lopate, Emily Barton and Jennifer Egan — was released and, from what we can tell, it will soon replace paperback copies of “Everything is Illuminated” and rumpled Dawn Powell novels as prime F train literature.

Conceived by Vogue magazine editors Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker — he lives in Fort Greene, she lives in Brooklyn Heights — the book is comprised of non-fiction works that range from the very personal (Alexandra Styron’s “A Sentimental Education” delves into her relationship with her father, William, famed author of “Sophie’s Choice”) to more historical — Egan’s “Reading Lucy” follows the life of a Navy Yard worker over five months in 1944.

The book’s introduction, penned by Lopate, makes a strong argument for the book’s existence on merit alone when it points out, “[Brooklyn’s] literary soul is sound and robust, and its writers fiercely loyal.”

However, it isn’t just to crow about the strength of our writers that the book exists, although that would be enough; all of the proceeds from the book’s sales will be donated to Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the community action group dedicated to opposing the Atlantic Yards project.

“From the very beginning, the idea was, ‘That’s what we’re going to do,’ ” said Steiker. “And it was remarkable that 20 writers immediately passionately jumped on board and were excited to write pieces but also to work for a noble cause.” All of the essays in the book were donated by the writers, who usually command very large paychecks.

The development, which is slated to include an arena for the Nets basketball team and a slew of high rises, has acquired some of its space through eminent domain, inciting the wrath of community activists.

“[The Atlantic Yard project] is a big mistake. It’s not just a sports [arena] and some housing — it’s this incredibly dense development of towers,” Lethem (“The Fortress of Solitude”) told GO Brooklyn in a 2007 interview. “To oppose that is not to be against development, but to say that this is really badly put together and to question why it’s been forced down the gullet of the borough instead of being built from the neighborhood’s interests up.”

It’s not surprising that the “Brooklyn Was Mine” contributors were interested in preserving the endangered area that abuts neighborhoods many of them call home.

“In the beginning,” said Knutsen, “we noted that there were several writers already on the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. So it wasn’t a huge associative leap to make.”

Another safe bet is counting on brainy Brooklynites to swarm around a book as if it were a benefit concert. The reading at BookCourt on Jan. 15 — featuring Darcey Steinke (“Easter Everywhere”), Alexandra Styron (“All the Finest Girls”) and Barton (“Brookland”) — will help draw attention to the tome and give fans a rare chance to see some of these celebrity authors read together.

And what’s in “Brooklyn Was Mine” for people who, for some reason that we’re not quite sure of, don’t live in the borough?

“I think on one hand, Brooklyn is an American ideal. It has such a rich, deep history from Coney Island to the Dodgers to Walt Whitman — there’s the sense that it’s an American landscape,” said Steiker. “I think there’s some crazy statistic that one in four Americans can trace their roots back to Brooklyn and on the other hand, we hope the essays transcend the sense of place.”

The book works so well because the essays do just that. Whether it’s “Down the Manhole,” Elizabeth Gaffney’s story about the cutting-edge sewers of 19th century Brooklyn or “I Hate Brighton Beach,” Lara Vapnyar’s essay about the way Russian culture has washed up on American shores; the stories reek of the borough but are universally appealing. Readers are asked to suspend their disbelief and accept a locale that can boast everything from a world-class minor league baseball team to the Cyclone in Coney Island to the dimly lit pubs of Kensington; a place that only those who live here know truly exists.

The flap copy describes Brooklyn as “what Greenwich Village was for an earlier generation — a wellspring of inspiration and artistic expression.” And while the award-winning (and, most likely, brownstone-owning) contributors do represent the brigade of bookish types that have taken over certain parts of the borough, at times it can feel as though Brooklyn is theirs, since no one not already in the triumphant writers club is included. But a book of unknowns most likely wouldn’t fly off the shelves in quite the same manner, and would earn less for the non-profit that the book is meant to bolster.

So, fly it should. All the celebrity names and Atlantic Yards fervor aside, the collection is a strong showing from some of the brightest talent writing today. The sum of the collection does end up equaling more than its parts, not unlike the borough itself.

Emily Barton, Darcey Steinke and Alexandra Styron will read from “Brooklyn Was Mine” (Riverhead Books, $15), edited by Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker, at 7 pm on Jan. 15 at BookCourt (163 Court St. at Pacific Street in Cobble Hill). For information, call (718) 875-3677 or visit

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
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