The most recommended James Baldwin books

Who picked these books? Meet our 14 experts.

14 authors created a book list connected to James Baldwin, and here are their favorite James Baldwin books.
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Book cover of Notes of a Native Son

Duncan Jepson Author Of All the Flowers in Shanghai

From my list on about protest.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been an activist working on issues relating to human rights and youth protection for over fifteen years and during that time I worked as a lawyer and was lucky enough to make films and write two novels. Eventually, I would concentrate solely on activism and my reading would become very specific and as the focus of my activism changed and I directed my energies to corporate accountability my reading changed course again. The list I offer is from talented writers on important subjects, all write extremely well about things that matter to a human rights activist.  

Duncan's book list on about protest

Duncan Jepson Why did Duncan love this book?

Baldwin writes both fiction and non-fiction beautifully and intimately and if you don’t know his non-fiction work then this is a very good place to start. Across a number of essays, he elegantly sets out the deep struggle faced by Black Americans and articulates how a different humanity, in America and beyond, and a different future can be realized. 

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Notes of a Native Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#26 on The Guardian's list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time, the essays explore what it means to be Black in America

In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin's essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With films like I Am Not Your Negro and the forthcoming If Beale Street Could Talk bringing renewed interest to Baldwin's life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction.

Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was…


Book cover of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Duncan Jepson Author Of All the Flowers in Shanghai

From my list on about protest.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been an activist working on issues relating to human rights and youth protection for over fifteen years and during that time I worked as a lawyer and was lucky enough to make films and write two novels. Eventually, I would concentrate solely on activism and my reading would become very specific and as the focus of my activism changed and I directed my energies to corporate accountability my reading changed course again. The list I offer is from talented writers on important subjects, all write extremely well about things that matter to a human rights activist.  

Duncan's book list on about protest

Duncan Jepson Why did Duncan love this book?

Professor Glaube leads us, from his own observations, and those of James Baldwin, through the precarity and failings of modern America. For someone that is new to living in the country and to the details and nuances of its history, it completely opened my mind. It is also beautifully written and though the content is challenging and uncomfortable, it is a joy to read.

By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Begin Again as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A powerful study of how to bear witness in a moment when America is being called to do the same.”—Time

James Baldwin grew disillusioned by the failure of the civil rights movement to force America to confront its lies about race. What can we learn from his struggle in our own moment?
 
One of the Best Books of the Year: Time, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune • One of Esquire’s Best Biographies of All Time • Winner of the Stowe Prize • Shortlisted for the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice
 
“Not…


Book cover of Mumbo Jumbo

Daniel Torday Author Of The 12th Commandment

From my list on prophetic American stories.

Why am I passionate about this?

If there's a throughline in all my books, it occurs to me I've always been writing about the dangers of extremism, the times when we get sucked too deeply into ideologies that lead to dangerous action. So this most recent novel felt like an ideal time to take that head-on: to see what would happen within a sect of Kabbalists, led by a self-proclaimed prophet, when things went bad. With that in mind... here's a bunch of books focused around prophecy!

Daniel's book list on prophetic American stories

Daniel Torday Why did Daniel love this book?

This novel may be my favorite book of the 1970s and a woefully underappreciated deep satire not just of its moment, but of ours as well. I think about the mere fact of museums being renamed "centers of art detention" once a day or so, and I haven't reread the book in a decade.

By Ishmael Reed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mumbo Jumbo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New in 2023, the 50th anniversary edition of the classic, freewheeling novel by one of the most iconic satirists of our time—now with a new introduction by the author.

“Part vision, part satire, part farce… A wholly original, unholy cross between the craft of fiction and witchcraft.” —The New York Times

It is the 1920s in New York City and an epidemic known as Jes Grew is sweeping the nation—a dancing plague, irresistible, joyful, and undeniably Black. Naturally, the powers-that-be are having none of it. A repressive conspiracy is operating in the shadows, and it is dead set on squelching…


Book cover of James Baldwin: Collected Essays

Kara Cooney Author Of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

From my list on power and the powerless.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a specialist of ancient Egyptian social history, who against the better judgment of (practically all) her colleagues uses the ancient past to make the present understandable. If we don’t fetishize the ancient Egyptians as separate and magical, they have something to teach us, whispering to us from the past through papyri, temples, and archaeological sites. After all, Egyptian history is 3000 years plus in its time span, an astounding data set of a people using same approximate language, government system, religion, and culture. Some of us look hungrily to replicate that kind of lasting and divine power. I am obsessed with power—how it works, why we are helpless to it, and who gets exploited by it. The ancient Egyptian kings effectively packaged their power not only as necessary, but as moral and good, ancient marketing that continues to work on our minds.

Kara's book list on power and the powerless

Kara Cooney Why did Kara love this book?

I am recommending this book because one can’t understand power without being beholden to it systemically and repeatedly, all the while dissecting power’s discontents. Baldwin’s words may seem to strike only to America’s core, but every marginalized person will find truth in them. As an Egyptologist, I rely on Baldwin to tell me what oppressed people in an authoritarian regime thought but could not commit to paper.

By James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison

Why should I read it?

1 author picked James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Baldwin was a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. His brilliant and provocative essays made him the literary voice of the Civil Rights Era, and they continue to speak with powerful urgency to us today, whether in the swirling debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or in the words of Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America's Collected Essays is the most comprehensive gathering of Baldwin's nonfiction ever published.

With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity…


Book cover of Conversations with James Baldwin

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Author Of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

From my list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile.

Why am I passionate about this?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

Magdalena's book list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Why did Magdalena love this book?

I discovered this compilation of many well- and lesser-known interviews when I began working on Baldwin in the year 2000. I love it as it gives us the writer in his own words, tracing his artistic development and views on his craft, exile, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as US politics, culture, and national identity. We follow Baldwin’s journey from 1961, with the famous Studs Terkel interview introducing “the young Negro writer,” to the “Last Interview” with Quincy Troupe, conducted in 1987, just days before Baldwin’s death in his beloved house in southern France. In between, we get a kaleidoscope of moments from his life and career and fascinating insights into his literary imaginary and humanistic philosophy. 

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conversations with James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of interviews with James Baldwin covers the period 1961-1987, from the year of the publication of Nobody Knows My Names, his fourth book, to just a few weeks before his death. It includes the last formal conversation with him.

Twenty-seven interviews reprinted here come from a variety of sources--newspapers, radio, journals, and review--and show this celebrated author in all his eloquence, anger, and perception of racial, social, and literary situations in America.

Over the years Baldwin proved to be an easily accessible and cooperative subject for interviews, both in the United States and abroad. He frequently referred to…


Book cover of A Stranger's Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing

Dinty W. Moore Author Of Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction

From my list on for essayists and memoirists.

Why am I passionate about this?

Dinty W. Moore is the author of the writing guides The Story Cure, Crafting the Personal Essay, and The Mindful Writer, among many other books. He has published essays and stories in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, and has taught master classes and workshops on memoir and essay writing across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico.

Dinty's book list on for essayists and memoirists

Dinty W. Moore Why did Dinty love this book?

Master teacher David Mura’s A Stranger's Journey addresses long-overlooked issues of race and identity in publishing and in the standard teaching of creative writing and he brilliantly advocates for a more inclusive and expansive definition of writing craft. Though this book is partly aimed at educators, he offers incredibly useful craft lessons as well, primarily through his deft analysis of work done by writers ranging from James Baldwin to Mary Karr to ZZ Packer. In a world that no longer accepts the notion that our greatest authors have to be “dead white men,” Mura offers a necessary window into the intersection of race, literature, and culture.

By David Mura,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Stranger's Journey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long recognized as a master teacher at writing programs like VONA, the Loft, and the Stonecoast MFA, with A Stranger's Journey, David Mura has written a book on creative writing that addresses our increasingly diverse American literature. Mura argues for a more inclusive and expansive definition of craft, particularly in relationship to race, even as he elucidates timeless rules of narrative construction in fiction and memoir. His essays offer technique-focused readings of writers such as Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary Karr, and Sherman Alexie, while making compelling connections to Mura's own life and work as a Japanese…


Book cover of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists

Ruth Brandon Author Of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945

From my list on group biographies.

Why am I passionate about this?

I love writing group biographies (I‘ve written four and my next book, Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art, will be another). I enjoy the intellectual scope they offer, the way they let you explore a world. I’m less interested in the details of individual lives than in the opportunity biography offers to explore social history, and group biography is particularly suited to that. They’re not easy to do, it’s no good putting down just one damn life after another, but I enjoy the challenge of finding the shape that will let me fit everyone’s personalities and ideas into a coherent story. 

Ruth's book list on group biographies

Ruth Brandon Why did Ruth love this book?

Cohen spent a year driving through America accompanied only by two crates of books. She realised, reading them, how many of their authors had met, more or less significantly, one another, from Mark Twain and Henry James to James Baldwin and Elizabeth Bishop. The result was this daisy-chain book. It’s fascinating, illuminating, and utterly charming.

By Rachel Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Chance Meeting as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Each chapter of A Chance Meeting takes up an actual encounter between two historical figures. As Rachel Cohen writes in her introduction: 'They met in ordinary ways - a careful arrangement after long admiration, a friend's casual introduction, or because they both just happened to be standing near the drinks. They talked to each other for a few hours or for forty years, and later it seemed to them impossible that they could have missed each other.' A Chance Meeting opens with a young Henry James in the studio of the great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and captures the…


Book cover of No Name in the Street

Dean A. Strang Author Of Keep the Wretches in Order: America's Biggest Mass Trial, the Rise of the Justice Department, and the Fall of the IWW

From my list on offering ideas to explore.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a lawyer, law professor, and author of legal history books. Mostly, though, I have much to learn. Importantly, then, I believe in the possibilities of learning. But how? Teaching, in the transitive sense of cramming something into another person's head, is impossible; yet learning is infinitely possible. Ideas are what excite us to learn. In widely varied ways, I have found engaging ideas in—and have learned importantly from—each of these books.

Dean's book list on offering ideas to explore

Dean A. Strang Why did Dean love this book?

A key work in the last part of Baldwin's life, as he was reassessing everything after the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and others in 1965-68. The reader can sense the aching effort Baldwin makes to retain hope and his sense of the worth of engagement with a world that so often rejected the essential him. Letting us, as his readers, into that doubt and pain and torment was an act of great honesty and, at bottom, love. Very few people could use the English language as powerfully as Baldwin (and he could do it in both spoken and written word, which puts him in a smaller group still). This book is a reminder of that power, too.

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked No Name in the Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary history of the turbulent sixties and early seventies that displays James Baldwin's fury and despair more deeply than any of his other works, and powerfully speaks to contemporary conversations around racism.

"It contains truth that cannot be denied.” — The Atlantic Monthly

In this stunningly personal document, James Baldwin remembers in vivid details the Harlem childhood that shaped his early conciousness and the later events that scored his heart with pain—the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, his sojourns in Europe and in Hollywood, and his retum to the American South to confront a violent America…


Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Author Of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

From my list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile.

Why am I passionate about this?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

Magdalena's book list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Why did Magdalena love this book?

This book grew out of the labor of love both scholarly and personal. It brings together three generations of scholars and diverse, interdisciplinary approaches to this complex and still largely misunderstood and underappreciated Black queer writer and theorist of 20th-century US identity. Michele Elam’s introduction deftly reevaluates and situates Baldwin as a 20th-century master for contemporary readers here and now, while the essays collected here provide cutting-edge scholarship and much nuance and fresh insight. Theoretically rich and with several exquisitely written essays, it touches upon all of the major aspects of the writer’s fascinating life and works.

By Michele Elam (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Companion offers fresh insight into the art and politics of James Baldwin, one of the most important writers and provocative cultural critics of the twentieth century. Black, gay, and gifted, he was hailed as a 'spokesman for the race', although he personally, and controversially, eschewed titles and classifications of all kinds. Individual essays examine his classic novels and nonfiction as well as his work across lesser-examined domains: poetry, music, theatre, sermon, photo-text, children's literature, public media, comedy, and artistic collaboration. In doing so, The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin captures the power and influence of his work during the…


Book cover of James Baldwin: A Biography

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Author Of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

From my list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile.

Why am I passionate about this?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

Magdalena's book list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Why did Magdalena love this book?

This is still the most comprehensive and detailed account of the writer’s life and works. Leeming worked closely with Baldwin as an assistant and secretary after first meeting him in Istanbul. 

I love this book, for it was my introduction to Baldwin and his life as an exile and one of the most powerful social and cultural critics of twentieth-century America. It’s written accessibly—the life-story narrative flows easily and one feels the author’s compassion for and understanding of the writer’s evolution, process, as well as his specific works. 

It has taught me that the best biographies both reveal and conceal their authors’ personal investment in their subject and their own life stories. And that the best biographers must skillfully and passionately play with both.

Years ago when I first read it, it was helpful in overcoming my initial terror as an immigrant from the Other Europe, the terror that I…

By David Leeming,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The most revealing and subjectively penetrating assessment of Baldwin's life yet published." -The New York Times Book Review. "The first Baldwin biography in which one can recognize the human features of this brilliant, troubled, principled, supremely courageous man." -Boston Globe

James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon-Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen-he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference.

A gay, African American writer…