Paperbacks: Through the Children's Gate, By Adam Gopnik

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The Independent Culture

Famously, New York City doesn't flirt: she sucks up, swells up, and, as often as not, spits out. In Adam Gopnik's collection of essays, ruminations and barbed ponderings, however, we see the Big Apple become sweet and almost soft.

Not that this is quite a love letter to the city. Gopnik is quietly scathing about those who want the old days of danger and depravity back. He also points out that the city has always changed: sepia has no exclusive claim on our sympathy. Still, he regards his New York as a new Avalon, unattainable even as you internalise it.

He steers through this paradox with elan: "The romantic vision – we'll get to the city across the river someday – ends up harmonising with the embrace of reality. We'll get that closet cleaned out yet." Like all true city dwellers, he knows there is a public, official map of the city, and a private one. He sees that every history has a secret history, written in footnotes.

His thoughts on childhood – or, more accurately, on parenthood – are as beautiful as they are persuasive, but just occasionally one notices an assumption somewhat ugly and unpersuasive: that children represent a separate, even higher, species. What do we make of this statement? "We delight in children because they keep the seven notes of enlightenment, as the Buddha noted them". It's all very charming until one remembers that while children can show us humanity at its most loveable, they also show it at its most animal.

Many writers from New York assume too much knowledge of their metropolis, forgetting that even the greatest cities can be hamlets, or legends, to those who live elsewhere. The Canadian-born Gopnik never falls into this trap. In his dealings with the reader he is always respectful and engaging. For the most part, niggles dwindle to squeaks under the steady flow of his eloquence, warmth and wit.

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