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10 books for understanding Boston better

So many superb titles have tackled Boston’s culture, history, and quirks—here’s a selection to help you better understand the city today

National Guardsmen would clash with striking police in September 1919.
| Bettmann Archive

Numerous authors over the decades have taken up their pen or their processor to try to better explain this lovely thing called Boston. Here are 10 of the best results. These books are a mix of nonfiction and fiction—and include a couple of selections for those under 18—and a mix of the very personal and the sweeping. Which titles would you add?

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families
J. Anthony Lukas
An incredible journalistic deep-dive (our copy clocks in at 688 pages) into how the changes in the Boston region and in the City of Boston in particular in the 1960s and 1970s impacted the lives of the people who lived through them. More than that, Common Ground is a tale of how the urban landscape morphed during that period; and how that change set the table for the rebound in urban living, for better or worse, that’s going on today.

An old photograph of streetcars making their way past a public park in a city.
Here’s the Western Hemisphere’s oldest subway just starting to trundle forth near Boston Common in January 1897.
Getty Images

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway
Doug Most
This history of the good, the bad, and the ugly that went into the development of the T is also about the development of the Boston region at a crucial time. Oh, the directions the area could’ve gone in, but didn’t. Plus, The Race Underground answers crucial questions such as why the hub-and-spoke design for the T—who came up with that genius idea?

All Souls: A Family Story From Southie
Michael Patrick MacDonald
This fast-paced, cleanly written memoir chronicles South Boston—and other parts of Boston—back in the day, with a particular emphasis on the events and the effects of the 1970s busing controversy. This is the book for those bibliophiles struggling to remember—though not romanticize—South Boston pre-gentrification.

The Last Hurrah
Edwin O’Connor
The city that Edwin O’Connor’s novel is set in is never named. Nevertheless, everyone knows The Last Hurrah is about (mostly Irish-American) power players and political intrigue in Boston in the early 20th century. The novel’s Frank Skeffington is basically a stand-in for James M. Curley, legendary Boston mayor, Massachusetts governor, etc. And, yes, the phrase springs from the title.

The Boston Girl
Anita Diamant
The novel is ostensibly about the long life of the fictional Addie Baum, but it also weaves a larger tale about immigrant life in Boston going back a century.

The Given Day
Dennis Lehane
Another novel that starts—and, in this case, also ends—100 years or so ago, The Given Day traces divergent storylines that converge on the 1919 Boston police strike.

The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865
Mark Peterson
Why did Boston go from America’s leading city—and, before that, one of the most important outposts of the mighty British empire—to merely the unofficial capital of New England? The answer is a long and winding tale, and one that runs the whole globe and back again. This 784-page doorstop is for the Boston history buff who thinks they know everything already.

A decimated urban landscape, with ruined buildings and people standing about.
The molasses disaster had a lasting effect on the regulation of real estate in Boston and nationwide.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
Stephen Puleo
This history hinges on the massive molasses flood that killed 21 people in the North End in January 1919, but it also illuminates the origins of the convulsions that Boston would endure during the rest of the 20th century. Dark Tide is a good reminder, too, of how much immigrants have shaped the city.

What’s the Big Idea? Four Centuries of Innovation in Boston
Stephen Krensky
This nonfiction book for adolescent readers is exactly what its title implies: A rundown of the inventive twists and turns in the region since the 1600s in fields as disparate as poetry, engineering, education, and food.

A child in a hoodie in front of small bronze statues of ducks and ducklings in a city park.
Sculptor Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings bronze—based on the book—is a major attraction in Boston’s Public Garden.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Make Way for Ducklings
Robert McCloskey
The children’s classic is essentially the story of a hunt for a decent place to live in Boston. So, yes, fun for the wee ones, but also very relatable for the grownups.


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