Travel Reads: Great Books about Boston

Traveling to Boston? Download one of these classic Boston reads and get ready to see the city (and New England) in a whole new light.


The Scarlet Letter (1850). Puritan woman commits a steamy act of adultery—but most of the book is about her relationship with society after that happens.

The Bostonians (1886). Bostonian Henry James pits traditional Brahmin values against “radical” feminist suffrage in a detail-riddled period novel about a supposedly pseudo-lesbian love affair. Particularly tragic satire.

Johnny Tremain (1943). Esther Forbes’s Newbury Award-winning book about a young silversmith’s apprentice suddenly thrown into the thick of the Revolution is an excellent introduction to the historical events that shaped both Boston and the nation.

The Crucible (1953). Arthur Miller’s play based on the Salem Witch Trials was actually written in response to the McCarthy communist witchhunts of the 1950s.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Margaret Atwood writes about a dystopia a la 1984, except much more feminist. As you follow the title character around her far-right totalitarian state, it will suddenly dawn on you in horror… She’s writing about Cambridge!

Asa, As I Knew Him (1987). Cambridge author Susanna Kaysen’s witty novel perfectly depicts the bookish climate of her town (complete with an intellectual love affair), then suddenly flashes back in time to examine the privileged life of those living on Cambridge’s old Tory Row (p. 232). Kaysen based her better-known Girl, Interrupted on her time at McLean Hospital in nearby Belmont.

A Drink Before the War (1994). The 1st of Dennis Lehane’s “Kenzie and Gennaro” detective novels follows the 2 Dorchester-based sleuths as they attempt to uncover corruption and racism in Boston’s government. From Beacon Hill to Savin Hill, this often gruesome, always hard-boiled thriller paints a horrifying portrait of racial, political, and socioeconomic tensions in and around Boston.

The Dante Club (2003). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell solve murder mysteries while translating The Inferno; no wonder Matthew Pearl’s historical fiction debut became a fixture on national bestseller lists.


In addition to the works below, local historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco has written over 25 “neighborhood biographies” (e.g., Boston’s North End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain), each using vivid prose, period photos, and countless artifacts to trace the history of a different district in the Boston area.

Common Ground (1986). Historian J. Anthony Lukas won a Pulitzer for this intelligent, troubling chronicle of the racially polarizing forced busing crisis (p. 60), recorded here through 3 different area families (2 white, 1 black) caught up in the turmoil.

The Big Dig: Reshaping an American City (2001). Peter Vanderwarker uses photographs, blueprints, interviews, and more to lead younger readers through Boston’s confounding Central Artery/Tunnel Project (p. 246)—not yet finished when he published.

Red Sox Century (2005). By Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, this is arguably the best of the many Sox histories out there. Originally published in 2000, it has since been updated to include the rather important events of the 2004 season.

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