Linguists Gone Mad: Paul Auster's Upper West Side

Fiction Language New York City Polls and Questions Postmodernism

In Paul Auster's City of Glass, a mad linguist named Peter Stillman pounds through the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, observed by a writer named Daniel Quinn who is impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn tracks Stillman's movements in a red notebook and eventually realizes that his daily walks are spelling out the words "TOWER OF BABEL".

I'm impressed that many of you correctly identified the location of the Litkicks Mystery Spot #6. The book was published 25 years ago (!) to little immediate acclaim, and has gradually emerged as one of our era's modern classics. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can't walk through New York City's Upper West Side to this day without thinking of City of Glass.

Auster's novel is very specific about the location of Peter Stillman's walks -- a slim rectangle in an expensive residential neighborhood, bounded by the Lincoln Center area to the south and Columbia University to the north -- so I was able to capture an image of the exact area described in the novel. I usually use Google Maps to capture the images for this series, but in this case I used Bing Maps, which has better rotation tools. For the image on this page, I tried at first to determine the exact shape, size and position of each letter from the clues in the book, but there was not enough information, so I decided to render the words in a small design font instead (in the actual story, the letters are much larger).

Two things I found during the course of this research surprised me. First, I had always assumed the letters spelling out "TOWER OF BABEL" were in order, but a close reading proves that they were not, since the "O" in "TOWER" is centered around 99th Street, and the "W" that follows is all the way down on 83rd Street. Also, I originally thought the letters appeared adjacent to each other, following the lines of the street like lines in a notebook. But, in fact, the text shows that the letters appeared one on top of the other, as in the image above.

One of my favorite things about City of Glass is the title, and the way the book's nervous mental processes transmit the feeling of uncertainty and fragility that the title suggests. Several of the words in yesterday's question were meant to echo the theme of glass: "shattering", "crystallize", "clear". Can't do a Litkicks Mystery Spot without some hidden clues!

Thanks again to those who answered (or tried to answer but couldn't). Stay tuned for #7 in a few weeks ... I've got another good one planned.

This article is part of the series Litkicks Mystery Spot. The next post in the series is A Walk in the Park: Litkicks Mystery Spot #7. The previous post in the series is A Walking Spell: Litkicks Mystery Spot #6.
6 Responses to "Linguists Gone Mad: Paul Auster's Upper West Side"

by Dan on

I was going to say, New York Stories, but that didn't quite fit. Forgot all about City of Glass -- will now have to go back and reread it.

More, please!

Which one should I read first, the original book or the graphic novel adaptation?

by Levi Asher on

Definitely the original book, Bill. I never saw the point of the graphic adaptation, though I guess it's a fact that others liked it.

by Dan on

I think graphic novels are meant for people who essentially can't read. Fun idea - a graphic adaptation of Ulysses - Proust!

by TKG on

Well Dan, I think this was mentioned here before but there is a graphic novel of Ulysses, so far only the first chapter, that is on-line only.

It's at

It's interesting in terms of the discussion going on here about e-publishing vs paper and the platforms that will be used for the e-publications.

If one goes to the blog site associated with the graphic novel

there is a section from last month about how Ulysses has been banned again -- this time by Steve Jobs.

The graphic novel (or rather novel chapter) has a version for iPad.

by Dan on

TKG - thanks for the links.

Ban Steve Jobs!

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