Book Review: ‘Humans of New York: Stories’

February 2, 2016 Updated: February 7, 2016

On Sept. 11, 2001, the world felt an intense empathy for the city of New York as many cried out, “Today we are all New Yorkers.”

As the years went by, that powerful sentiment dwindled until we truly only feel like a New Yorker one day a year. But Brandon Stanton understands that being a New Yorker is more than a singular day of remembrance. For him, to be a New Yorker is to be a human.

Everyone has a story to tell.

For the past five years, Stanton has scoured the streets, collecting stories from more than 10,000 individuals. They offer him their joyous musings, their darkest secrets, and their hard-learned pieces of advice.

Most importantly, they offer him a simple truth: Everyone has a story to tell. In “Humans of New York: Stories,” Stanton pries open the typical stranger on the street and pulls out a tale of humanity.

“Do you remember the time you felt proudest of your sister?” Stanton asks a pink-clad girl pushing a younger girl in a wheelchair.

“When she tried to walk,” the girl replies.

Each interview is captured in what Stanton deems is the most poignant moment and an accompanying picture. The captions are as long or as short as it takes for each individual to tell his or her story.

“Five years ago I got hit by a jeep on my bike. I woke up in the hospital with my face all messed up. I was on lots of morphine, and my family had all gone home because they’d been told I wouldn’t wake up that night. I was really scared. The next few weeks, while I was healing, I told myself that if I ever got better, I’d never live a mediocre life,” says another willing participant in Stanton’s experiment.

In many cases, photograph and caption are complementary. One only makes sense when it is paired with the other. Sometimes, the most vulgar responses come from the sweetest of faces. Other times, the man with the unkempt beard and shabby clothes says something so thoughtful and profound that you begin to see the true philosopher underneath the gruff exterior.

“What’s your greatest fear?” Stanton asks a young boy wearing a tie-dye shirt, jean shorts, and tennis shoes with an open book on his lap. “Getting a lobotomy,” is his reply.

One of the more remarkable things about “Humans of New York: Stories” is how unremarkable Barack Obama is portrayed.

Yes, the president of the United States makes an appearance, somewhere in the middle of the book, on a page just like all the others. There is no pomp or fanfare about it—just a simple picture and a simple question and a response from a man just as complex as the others.

Because in Stanton’s New York, everyone is human.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding “Humans of New York: Stories.” After all, it stemmed from a very successful blog of the same name, gathering 15 million followers.

But when you read the book, try to keep thoughts of “phenomenon” out of your mind. Concentrate on the people in front of you. Study the face of the elderly woman with the geometrical sunglasses. Trace your finger around the hand of the individual showing off his or her therapist’s rug on a smartphone.

Take your time to linger on each person’s story if you can. Brandon Stanton provided his audience with a rare opportunity to peek into the life of the stranger sitting beside you on the bus. Take advantage of this gift.

I dare you to put it down.

“Humans of New York: Stories”
By Brandon Stanton
St. Martin’s Press
428 pages; $29.99

Chelsea Scarnegie lives and writes in the Chicago area.