Best Books : A Tribute to Literary Boston

Literary Boston View
Boston Commons, Charles River

Tribute to Literary Boston

Our attention was focused on the tragedy in Boston and subsequent manhunt all last week. Thank goodness– and thanks to the people of the city and surrounding towns, and thanks to law enforcement personnel–the drama finally came to an end.

I want to remind people that it is always a good idea to plan travel to Boston, one of the most fascinating cities in the country. The Boston Marathon draws International crowds, and will continue to do so. Additionally, the delightful mix of neighborhoods, the history, outstanding museums, lively nightlife, and the wonderful Boston Commons all beckon travelers. So today, instead of our regular programming, I thought I would suggest some reading about literary Boston, and suggest some travel to the city via books set in Boston. (You are definitely invited and encouraged to leave a comment with your own favorite Boston book or author.)

The first time we visited Boston, in a very hot August, we cursed the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. What a contrast last week when the city was shut down and streets were empty.

Boston has always been a literary city, and you can learn more about Boston for book-loving travelers in this article that ran back in 2009 at A Traveler’s Library, about a literary Boston walking guide and some history of the city.

Literary Boston John Adams
John Adams stands outside of Quincy City Hall

Speaking of history, we also talked about Boston history in a couple of other articles.

  • This article talks about books about John Adams  (2008)and the Revolutionary war, 1776, (2007) both by David McCullough.
  • The author of Walking Boston (2008), Robert Todd Felton, wrote about this little gem of France in Boston.
  • Literary Trail of Greater Boston: A Tour of Sites (2005) by Susan Wilson is another  guide to touring the literary Boston.
  • And if you want to understand Boston, you need to understand the Pilgrims, dissected in the book Mayflower(2007).

A couple of  other non-fiction history books that I haven’t read, but other people recommend:

  • Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (1999) by Richard Ketchum
  • Paul Revere’s Ride (1995) by David Hackett Fischer

Historical novels recommended by various articles on the Internet, especially a long thread at Library Thing:

  • The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James
  • The Late George Apley (1938) by John Marquand. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo (2004) about the 1919 molasses flood.

Moving into more contemporary subjects, you can find a slew of detective books set in Boston.

  • The most famous is probably Spenser.  I wrote about using Spenser mysteries as a guide to Boston.
  • Lately I’ve become addicted to the TV series, Rizzoli and Isles, based on a series of (so far) ten mysteries by Tess Gerritsen, starring the characters and set in the Boston police department.
  • Highly recommended on Library Thing: The Dante Club (2003) by Matthew Pearl, a mystery featuring prominent literary figures from Boston during the 19th century. I want to read this one!


Literary Boston boat trip to Martha's Vinyard
A short trip out of Boston–Martha’s Vinyard–where Jaws was filmed.

Looking for a different genre? Here are some recommendations from the Internet:

  • Science Fiction, eco-thriller: Zodiac (2007) by Neal Stephenson
  • Chick Lit: Hot and Bothered by Anne Downey (2006)
  • Children’s Book ( A MUST before visiting Boston Commons!): Make Way for Ducklings (1966, with many later editions) by Robert McCloskey
  • Local Author: Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River (2002 and many later editions). It was a novel before it was a movie.

I know that I have only scratched the surface, so why don’t you join in to this literary tribute to Boston and recommend your favorite Boston book?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

16 thoughts on “Best Books : A Tribute to Literary Boston

  1. I haven’t been in Boston in many years, but remember it as a vibrant and lively city with all those universities. Been thinking of taking the kids, actually. And really, it’s just a quick hop across the water. Thanks for this great – and varied – list of Boston reads. The Dante Club sounds especially intriguing.

  2. We had some friends get married in Boston last fall and I was very sad I couldn’t attend the wedding there, I’ve always wanted to see it. My nephew and his wife are also going to visit this year. I think it’s time for me to go.

  3. I’m writing this comment from Boston, where my daughter lives. I’m so glad you did not forget the ducklings on your list, or Lehane. The latest book I read set partially in Boston and by a Boston writer is one you would like, because it takes readers to Italy, too: Chris Castellani’s All This Talk of Love.

  4. I could certainly speak up for Boston area musicians, and places to hear music, and bookstores… but you did say books. Susan Gedutis Lindsay has written a history of Irish music and the Irish immigrant community in Boston from the 1920s to the 1950s called See You at the Hall. Though they aren’t the most brilliant writing I’ve ever read, Irene Allen’s series of mysteries set in a Quaker community in Cambridge are good for atmosphere — come across the Charles! and then there are William Martin’s novels set in Boston — Bay Bay maybe the best known. Again, not my favorite writer but atmospheric at times.

    also, speaking of Make Way for Ducklings, did you know that Nancy Schon, the sculptor who did the ducklings on the Common, also did a tortoise and hare in honor of all marathon participants? it’s in Copley Square, put there around 1994, I think.

    1. Kerry: Thanks for a couple more mystery series. Boston seems to overflow with mystery novels! And of course there would be a good bit of Irish literature, there being a good number of Irish immigrants!

      1. I don’t think you’ve mentioned Johnny Tremain yet, either — a classic children’s book, to be sure.
        if you’d like to come across the river to Cambridge again there’s another classic, a non fiction book about music: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney. hadn’t thought of it in a while, but it is one of my favorite books about the area and the era. loads of photos and reflections of the time.
        Boston Globe music writer Scott Alarik has written a novel set in the contemporary folk music scene in Boston, called Revival. wasn’t my cup of tea but it’s been very popular and received good reviews.

  5. I’ve always wanted to visit Boston. The Boston that I know is definitely the one in Robert Parker’s Spenser novels, but I recently sped my way through several of the Rizzoli and Isles mysteries too. Spenser has more of a Boston flavour, though, than the Gerritsen novels.

    1. Belle: I have to admit that I didn’t even realize that the TV show was based on a series of novels when I started watching Rizzoli and Isles. I have your to thank for that bit of information. Highly recommend to my bookish readers that they take a look at you site.

  6. I’ve been to Boston 3 times. First, as a child with my parents. My husband and I went while in college while I was in the middle of reading through the Spenser books (which really do give you a great feel for the city). Then we took our kids. It’s a city I enjoy visiting immensely!

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