The books about Boston that historians think you should read

A black and white photograph with a trolley car from the late 1800s traveling along a city street.
Tremont and West streets in downtown Boston, circa 1895. (Transit Department photograph collection/City of Boston Archives)

Boston is known for its great concentrations of history and higher education. Put those two together, and you get a lot of books written about the city.

We spoke to a range of writers, academics and historians to learn about the titles that inform them on key parts of Boston's history: from the Indigenous inhabitants to the American Revolution; from notorious political leaders to the busing crisis of the 1970s.

Learn more about the historians we spoke with:

  • Dart Adams is a local music journalist, historian, lecturer and host of the podcasts Dart Against Humanity and Boston Legends. His commentary appears frequently on WBUR and he's a regular contributor at Boston Magazine.
  • Stephen Puleo is an author and historian in the Boston area with seven nonfiction works, including "A City So Grand, The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900." Puleo said an eighth book is on the way.
  • Maria John teaches history at UMass Boston, where she serves as director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program. Her book-in-progress compares the health struggles and activism of urban indigenous communities in Australia and the U.S.
  • Jim Vrabel is a historian, community activist and former reporter in Boston. He published "When in Boston," a 380-page timeline and almanac that includes everything from 1000 BCE to the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004. Since the book came out 20 years ago, he's expanded its contents 20-fold and turned it into a database.

Here are reading recommendations from these history buffs, organized by topic:

General Boston History

"Boston: A Topographical History," Walter Muir Whitehill and Lawrence W. Kennedy

Jim Vrabel argues this book "demonstrates how much Boston is an 'intentional city,' one that didn't just grow but was built — made, molded and shaped by people who cut down its hills, filled its marshes, developed an architecture and connected it to the outside world."

"The Hub: Boston Past and Present," Thomas H. O’Connor

"The late Thomas O'Connor was our homegrown [two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian] David McCullough, a felicitous writer who rescued Boston history from its mustiness and brought it to a wider audience," Vrabel said. "In this general history of the city, and in his many other books that focused on specific subjects, he also made that history more inclusive."

"The Many Voices of Boston: A Historical Anthology 1630-1975," Howard Mumford Jones and Bessie Zaban Jones

"This one-volume anthology extends the coverage of Boston history by almost 100 years," said Vrabel. "There is something important, evocative and even charming at being able to read the original writings of Bostonians from [early figures] John Winthrop, John Eliot and Cotton Mather, to Abigail Adams Homans [the great-great-granddaughter of the second U.S. president], [The Atlantic Monthly editor] Edward Weeks and [poet] Robert Lowell."

The Revolution

"Paul Revere's Ride," David Hackett Fischer

"This is a great book with the full and accurate story of the ride and its aftermath," Stephen Puleo said. "If you're living in this area, this is a must-read. It's sourced amazingly well. It's kind of the quintessential Boston revolutionary story. Paul Revere's ride from the Cambridge side of the Charles River through Middlesex County on the night of April 18, 1775, and the morning of April 19, warning that 'the British regulars were coming' was the beginning of the American Revolution. Revere was warned that the British were coming 'by sea' (across the Charles River) by allies who hung two lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church."

Black Boston

"A Chain of Change: Struggles for Black community development," Mel King

"This is the book of Black Boston," said Dart Adams. "This is a crucial book. Find it. Read it."

"Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools," Jonathan Kozol

"This is a famous book about Black Boston," said Adams, "even though it's not directly about Black Boston. If you want to understand a world where Boston was not overwhelmingly nonwhite, and how the Boston Public School system failed Black students at every turn, this book is a must-own/must-read."

"Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America," Stephen and Paul Kendrick

"This is the story of the 1849 court case that sought to desegregate schools in Boston," said Puleo. "I think they do a good job of putting people in the moment. It's a landmark case because the state Supreme Court rules against Sarah Roberts and her dad. Boston had desegregated different parts of its society, even as early as 1849, and then decides in favor of Boston’s Primary School Committee in 1850. So, interesting book — a good period book as the city is changing overall."

Indigenous History

"Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England," Jean M. O’Brien

"When it comes to Indigenous history in New England, if I had to choose just one book to situate readers here in Boston, I’d pick this impeccable example of how historical research can help us understand our contemporary world," said Maria John. "At heart, the book explains the longstanding and ongoing problem of Indigenous erasure here in the Northeast, not only in the realm of history, but in the physical and cultural landscape. This problem of erasure is ongoing and answers for a lot of the contemporary struggles faced by Indigenous communities, especially here in New England."

"Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War," Lisa Brooks, and "Memory Lands: King Philip's War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast," by Christine M. DeLucia

"For histories of King Philip’s War — a historical event crucial to this region that too few Bostonians understand or even know about — I recommend both books," John said. "These two publications do a lot to reframe the more common understandings of this history from an Indigenous peoples perspective."

"When Last the Glorious Light: Lay of the Massachuset," Ed Quill

"It was written by a former Boston Globe reporter and the former director of the Boston City Archives," said Vrabel. "Unlike most books about Indigenous people that are regional and even New England-wide in their focus, this one concentrates on those who lived in the Boston area and is the first book-length history of the Massachusett tribe."

Politics and People

"Before Busing, A History of Boston's Long Black Freedom Struggle," Zebulon Vance Miletsky

Another Adams recommendation: "I think everybody needs to read this book to understand that Black Boston has existed, will exist, and God damn it, our stories need to be told."

"Common Ground," J. Anthony Lukas

"You can’t neglect 'Common Ground'; it's hard to understand the busing crisis without reading this. I think it just is really well done," Puleo said. "It's three families that Lucas chronicles during the busing crisis, that whole racial era in Boston history. The book does a nice job of of looking at poor Blacks, poor whites and what busing meant to them. It’s a good one for people to sink their teeth into to understand that period."

Adams, a Black Boston history writer, had a different take on "Common Ground": "People say this is the Bible, but I don't agree. I think people get stuck on this book and think that this is how Boston is now. Boston in 2023 and Boston in this book (the 1970s) are not the same animal."

"Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston South End," Sylvie Tissot

"I just got this recently," Adams said, "and my mind has been opened to so many things. [Tissot] did a lot of research."

"The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958)," Jack Beatty

"You can't know Boston if you don't know James Michael Curley," Puleo said. " 'The Rascal King' covers that era in Boston Irish history — the political history of the era — which is massive. Curley was one of Boston's most iconic and notorious mayors, a powerful man of the people who also engaged in his share of corruption, and served prison time, but who never lost his connection with the ordinary working man and woman in Boston. [He was] at times a scoundrel and at times a cult hero."

Arts & Culture

"Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and other Rebellious Passions," Nat Hentoff

"Hentoff was a Jewish guy who grew up in Roxbury before Roxbury became overwhelmingly Black and Latino like we know it today," Adams said. "He actually lived there when it was a good mix of people and there was a sizable Jewish population. The things he recounts in his book are amazing. And also, he's one of the all-time great music writers, and he’s from my neighborhood."

"The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Places, Faces, Places and Nightlife 1937 and 1962," Richard Vacca

"I walk up and down these streets, and this book just tells me almost everything I need to know about my neighborhood, and what was there, what wasn't there," said Adams, "all the jazz clubs, the venues, the people that played there, and how much signage we don't have telling people the history of this neighborhood."


Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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