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Nathaniel Popkin is a Philly author with a rare double play: Two new books at once

Nathaniel Popkin has a new novel out, "Everything is Borrowed," and has co-edited a new anthology, too: "Who Will Speak for America."

Philadelphia author Nathaniel Popkin.
Philadelphia author Nathaniel Popkin.Read morePeter Woodall

Most writers would be overjoyed to have just one book out. Philadelphia's Nathaniel Popkin has two at once: a novel and a big literary anthology responding to the Trump era. It's the summer's best local literary twofer.

The novel is Everything Is Borrowed (New Door Press, $24.95), in which a Philadelphia architect delves into the past to find the meaning of his craft. The anthology, co-edited with Stephanie Feldman, is Who Will Speak for America? (Temple University Press, $19.95), a collection of civic and political essays, cartoons, and poetry by 42 writers, editors, translators, and artists.

Popkin is a nationally prominent arts critic. He's also a very Philly guy. In Who Will Speak for America?, "our biggest group of writers, geographically, was from Philly," he says, "and it's about friggin' time."

"We really have a rising literary community here," Popkin says. "It's vast and diverse."

He's got a point: You can't go wrong with local names such as Ken Kalfus, Carmen Maria Machado, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Cynthia Dewi Oka, and Marc Anthony Richardson.

Popkin may be the contemporary Philadelphia writer most steeped in the city itself. As a historian, critic, novelist, and expert on all things Philadelphia, he has trained a discerning eye on this town's past, present, and future. Like Everything Is Borrowed, his earlier novel Lion and Leopard (2013), is set here in the 19th century.

His three nonfiction books also concern Philadelphia. Last year's Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, took readers on a photographic and critical tour behind closed doors, through unknown tunnels, into disused offices, churches, and public spaces to recover a Philadelphia that is still here, if hidden away.

That was a direct extension of his work with the celebrated website Hidden City Daily, a clearinghouse of news about architecture, planning, and preservation in a town mad about all three – with the stated goal of spurring social action to defend and improve the city.

Popkin calls his two new books "part of a cycle with Finding the Hidden City."  The theme of that cycle is a city and a country made of layers of history, and of how we can "read" both to understand the past and take action in the present.

That's literally what the central character, Nicholas Moskowitz, does in Everything Is Borrowed. As the book's title suggests, Philadelphia is a town that grew, one level atop another, with "borrowings from Swedish cities, English cities, even Rome," Popkin says. "A city can be read like a book, and Philadelphia 2018 is uniquely readable if you know how."

Moskowitz faces a creative block in his architectural work, eased only when he starts reading the city's past. He hits the library and learns of turmoil in a Jewish community here in the late 19th century. He finds a doppelgänger of sorts in the anarchist Julius Moskowitz. "In learning about Julius," Popkin says, "Nicholas starts on a path toward greater justice in his work."

In Who Will Speak for America?, the aim again is to understand America's many histories and many narratives, with the aim of social action to achieve greater justice.

The title echoes Barbara Jordan's memorable July 1976 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in New York: "The great danger America faces [is] that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America?"

Popkin and Feldman invited a broad range of writers and artists from across the country "to answer that question in any way they wanted," Popkin says. What's remarkable is the white heat in which Popkin and Feldman completed the project. "We put our invitation out in May [2017]," he says, "and we delivered the manuscript in August. It was very intense work."

Popkin and Feldman had helped organize the Philadelphia rendition of the nationwide Writers Resist demonstration of January 2017, the weekend before the inauguration of President Trump. Sara Cohen, editor at Temple University Press, suggested Popkin create a book that riffed off that event. Almost all the writers in the book were part of it.

As Popkin and Feldman worked, the contributions fell naturally into two groups, reflected in the book's table of contents.

"The first is called 'Speaking to America,' which breaks down into 'To Ourselves,' 'To Our Families,' and 'To Our Americas,' that is, addressing the country as we variously see it," Popkin says.

"The second part is called 'Speaking for America,' in which a wide variety of people who feel they are American define the country in surprising ways." Under the subheading "For the Nation," writers try to imagine a national identity, and in "For the Future," they imagine various fates for the country, everything from utopias to dystopias, even dissolution.

Both Who Will Speak for America? and Everything Is Borrowed embrace grief, outrage, uplift, and shades of hope and despair, love and disdain, in between. A Philadelphian who knows his history, Popkin thinks books like these can speak from our past to our present moment.

"We're living in a reactionary, nativist moment, but we've been there before," he says. "Right outside the door of my building have been extraordinary displays of racial hatred. But this is also a city built on acceptance, where abolition took root, where the first and largest free black community in the country took hold.

"Reading this city can be a complicated thing," he says, "like reading this country. But both can make you feel some hope."