From the Backlist: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles (2011)

We’re just nicely settling into the new year now, and I got to thinking about ‘January books’. I realized that I can’t think of many books I associate with the start of the year, with one exception, and it’s a big one: Amor Towles’s wonderful 2011 debut, Rules of Civility. This book has a special place in my heart, for not only did it introduce me to an author who is now among my all-time favorites, but it also served to jump-start my reading life after a long period when I struggled to find the right fiction titles that worked for me.*

The story of Rules of Civility starts on a snowy New Year’s Eve in 1937, in a jazz bar in the West Village of Manhattan, when a dashing businessman sits next Katey, the Brooklyn-bred daughter of a Russian immigrant, and Eve, a recent arrival from the Midwest. Thus begins an incredible year in all their lives, a year in which reputations, identities, loves, and fortunes are all gained and lost.

This is not a perfect book. The story it tells is not exactly groundbreaking, and it never reaches the heights of Towles’s 2016 release A Gentleman in Moscow. But it’s still an incredibly wonderful and fun read that explores profound themes, such as success, merit, and the myths and realities of the American dream. And Towles’s writing prowess is already in fine form here: There are turns of phrase and descriptions of city life that I continue to think about over a decade after I read it. It’s also high on my list of ‘best New York City books’ of all time, with the wonderful way in which the characters inhabit and come to embody the city in all its uptown vs. downtown, Manhattan vs. Brooklyn, wealthy vs. poor, and establishment vs. newcomer diversity.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • the 1930s
  • New York City
  • Fortune
  • Social climbing


“In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”

* NOTE: The main reason for this extended slump was that I’d grown suspicious of new releases as a teenager and so had pivoted strongly to classics. While I really loved some newer books during that season of my life, without a recommendation from a trusted source, I always defaulted to ‘the canon’. And as a general rule, I find that the ‘canon’ of English literature doesn’t work for me — especially the mid-twentieth century canon that showed up so much on the ‘best of the twentieth century’ lists that still felt relevant in the first decade of this century.


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