The most recommended modernism books

Who picked these books? Meet our 28 experts.

28 authors created a book list connected to modernism, and here are their favorite modernism books.
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Book cover of Zeno's Conscience

D.B.C. Pierre Author Of Vernon God Little: A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death

From my list on misfits and wretched excess.

Why am I passionate about this?

Don’t ask me why I grew aware, from the earliest age, of living in more than one world. There seemed to be a strident world of what we said was happening, and a twilight world of what was really happening. I ended up liking and writing about the world of what really happens, because while all our seamless goal-driven plans are filling the air there’s this beautiful, whimsical, frail and often ridiculous world where we’re hapless and riddled with twists. The world of humanity. The backstage of laughter and tears. And for that, I present five outrageous old friends living in books from our strange human history.

D.B.C.'s book list on misfits and wretched excess

D.B.C. Pierre Why did D.B.C. love this book?

A doctor in early twentieth-century Trieste demands that an eccentric patient write his memoirs as a form of psychotherapy. These pages are those memoirs – the doctor calls them all lies – and form the fictional life story of one of my favourite misfits, the unreliable Zeno Cosini, with his horde of idiosyncrasies. Between proposing to three sisters within an hour and making a fortune on the stock market by mistake, he spends his time nurturing his hypochondria and trying to give up smoking, which means endlessly smoking ‘last cigarettes’. A seminal work of modernism, this is another novel with autobiographical ties to the author, and I left it torn between laughter and tears over just how complex, ironic and funny we humans can be.

By Italo Svevo, William Weaver (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A marvel of psychological insight from one of the most important Italian literary figures of the twentieth century

When vain, obsessive and guilt-ridden Zeno Cosini seeks help for his neuroses, his psychoanalyst suggests he writes his memoirs as a form of therapy. Zeno's account is an alternative reality, a series of elliptical episodes dealing with the death of his father, his career, his marriage and affairs, and, above all, his passion for smoking and his spectacular failure to resist the promise of that last cigarette. A hymn to self-delusion and procrastination, Svevo's devilishly funny portrayal of a man's attempt to…

Book cover of Paris Between the Wars: Art, Style and Glamour in the Crazy Years

Tessa Lunney Author Of Autumn Leaves, 1922: A Kiki Button Mystery

From my list on the 1920s.

Why am I passionate about this?

I started reading about the 1920s after I read Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson in 2008. I kept reading about the 1920s, particularly 1920s Paris, through my Masters and then my Doctorate in war fiction. I would read about interwar Europe, or America, or Britain, when I needed to work on my doctorate but was too tired to read about trenches or trauma, and it became an obsession. Then it became the subject of two novels, which involved more and more particular research. I love the period's brittle gaiety, its dirty glamour, a time of cultural and political revolution as people fought for a better world.

Tessa's book list on the 1920s

Tessa Lunney Why did Tessa love this book?

This beautiful tome, with endless photos, takes a tour of Paris through the années folles, from the end of the Great War in 1919 to the start of World War Two in 1939. Many histories of Paris in this period focus solely on the culture – understandable, as this outpouring of modernism was world-shaking. This book includes history, politics, law, Parisian café life, sex workers, immigration, and more. My copy is full of so many notes that I had to buy a second copy. Here I found the underground gay scene and the effect of the war on the working class. Schiaparelli’s surreal hats sat along an overview of soup kitchens during the Depression. The book shows Paris as it was lived in those years, and mostly through visual material, giving the impression that you could book a ticket and visit.

By Vincent Bouvet, Gérard Durozoi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paris Between the Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the years between 1919 and 1939, Paris experienced a cultural and intellectual boom. Packed with amazing illustrations, this book explores every aspect of the city during the interwar years, when Paris truly was the City of Light. Featuring a stellar array of artists, writers, composers, musicians, designers and artists, Paris between the Wars covers everything from architecture and technology, to fashion, cafe culture and the gay scene.

Book cover of Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern Author Of Lenin's Jewish Question

From my list on European art, culture, and history.

Why am I passionate about this?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in the History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish history; Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish literary encounters.

Yohanan's book list on European art, culture, and history

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern Why did Yohanan love this book?

This excellent collection of articles by the top connoisseurs of East European art and culture discusses how Ukrainians and Jews created new trends in art and literature in the midst of the revolutionary turmoil Kyiv, then short-lived capital of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and later of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This book proves that avant-garde images and trends emerge from the revolutionary utopianism and the desire to create a universalistic language understandable beyond the ethnic divide and languages.

By Irena Makaryk, Virlana Tkacz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Modernism in Kyiv as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of modernism has been largely focused on Western cultural centres such as Paris, Vienna, London, and New York. Extravagantly illustrated with over 300 photos and reproductions, Modernism in Kyiv demonstrates that the Ukrainian capital was a major centre of performing and visual arts as well as literary and cultural activity. While arguing that Kyiv's modernist impulse is most prominently displayed in the experimental work of Les Kurbas, one of the masters of the early Soviet stage, the contributors also examine the history of the city and the artistic production of diverse groups including Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and Poles.…

Book cover of Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist

Paul French Author Of City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir

From my list on old Shanghai.

Why am I passionate about this?

I came to Shanghai largely by accident back in the late twentieth century and found a city of art deco and modernism, of influences form east and west – then far less developed, smaller and more intimate, as if a dust sheet had been thrown over the city in 1949 and the metropolis underneath left to await a new era. The old city, the once international city that was the most modern in Asia – jazz, skyscrapers with elevators, streamline moderne villas, a hundred nationalities living cheek-by-jowl was still, seemingly, just within reach. I’ve never stopped being fascinated by that old world, or writing about it.

Paul's book list on old Shanghai

Paul French Why did Paul love this book?

This is a collection of short stories by one of China’s modernist masters, mostly translated by Andrew Field. However, Mu is largely forgotten and rarely read now either in Chinese or in translation. The reason is simple – he chose to collaborate with the Japanese in World War Two. Yet his short stories are so emblematic of old Shanghai, its dancehalls and bars; nightclubs and bordellos. Mu moves through a Shanghai demimonde of Chinese and foreigners, gangsters and tycoons, imported whisky, and Shanghainese cuisine. His writing is the epitome of the nighttime neon-lit old photography of the city we are so familiar with; his characters those we see on the old pre-war black and white movies from Shanghai’s film studios.

By Andrew David Field,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shanghai’s “Literary Comet” When the avant-garde writer Mu Shiying was assassinated in 1940, China lost one of its greatest modernist writers while Shanghai lost its most detailed chronicler of the city’s Jazz-Age nightlife. Mu’s highly original stream-of-consciousness approach to short story writing deserves to be re-examined and re-read. As Andrew Field argues, Mu advanced modern Chinese writing beyond the vernacular expression of May Fourth giants Lu Xun and Lao She to reveal even more starkly the alienation of a city trapped between the forces of civilization and barbarism in the 1930s. Mu Shiying China’s Lost Modernist includes translations of six…

Book cover of Night Train

Norman Lock Author Of American Follies

From my list on the mind at play.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have written stage and radio plays, poetry, short story collections, and, beginning in 2013, novels that comprise The American Novels series, published by Bellevue Literary Press. Unlike historical fiction, these works reimagine the American past to account for faults that persist to the present day: the wish to dominate and annex, the will to succeed in every department of life regardless of cost, and the stain of injustice and intolerance. In order to escape the gravity of an authorial self, I address present dangers and follies through the lens of our nineteenth-century literature and in a narrative voice quite different from my own.

Norman's book list on the mind at play

Norman Lock Why did Norman love this book?

Impulse and happenstance set the syllabus of my reading, and so it was that, shortly after reading Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary, I chanced to see a notice for her rendering into English, from the Dutch, a selection of the very short stories written by the late A. L. Snijders. He wrote plainly, eschewing elegance and complications of form and syntax in favor of simple sentences that laid out, in workmanlike prose, his casual, wry observations of, and on, his fellow Dutchmen, Dutch women, and also Dutch animals, of whom he was fond. Here is no Modernist heroic ambition, no Postmodernist archness, no posturing, or overbearing intellectual or moral superiority. He wrote thousands of his peculiar miniatures, we are told by Davis in her foreword on the writer and on the problems of translation in general.

Those she chose for Night Train rise above anecdote or sketch, despite their Dutch…

By A L Snijders, Lydia Davis (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Gorgeously translated by Lydia Davis, the miniature stories of A. L. Snijders might concern a lost shoe, a visit with a bat, fears of travel, a dream of a man who has lost a glass eye: uniting them is their concision and their vivacity. Lydia Davis in her introduction delves into her fascination with the pleasures and challenges of translating from a language relatively new to her. She also extols Snijders's "straightforward approach to storytelling, his modesty and his thoughtfulness."
Selected from many hundreds in the original Dutch, the stories gathered here-humorous, or bizarre, or comfortingly homely-are something like daybook…

Book cover of Reading Berlin 1900

Brian Ladd Author Of The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape

From my list on understanding 20th-century Berlin.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian of cities and the ways people shape them. Living in Berlin, both before and after the Wall came down, made me aware of how the shared experiences and memories of particular places give meaning to civic life. (And for a historian it was thrilling to find a place where history was taken very seriously.) Although I have since written broader studies—of cars and cities (Autophobia) and of earlier street life (The Streets of Europe)–it was the experience of living in Berlin while learning its history that enabled me to see the layers of meaning embedded in buildings and streets.

Brian's book list on understanding 20th-century Berlin

Brian Ladd Why did Brian love this book?

There are many books about the glitz and the cultural icons that we associate with Weimar Berlin. This one gives us a broader and deeper picture. Instead of concentrating on a few writers and artists, it anchors the city’s creative explosion in mass-market newspapers and their readers, turning our eyes to people in the streetcars and cafés and the stories they read about their own lives. We can read about sensational crimes just as Berliners did, and we find the prototypes of modern art in the layout and content of newspapers and in the chaos of the streets where they are hawked.

By Peter Fritzsche,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Reading Berlin 1900 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The great cities at the turn of the century were mediated by words--newspapers, advertisements, signs, and schedules--by which the inhabitants lived, dreamed, and imagined their surroundings. In this original study of the classic text of urban modernism--the newspaper page--Peter Fritzsche analyzes how reading and writing dramatized Imperial Berlin and anticipated the modernist sensibility that celebrated discontinuity, instability, and transience. It is a sharp-edged story with cameo appearances by Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, and Alfred Doeblin. This sumptuous history of a metropolis and its social and literary texts provides a rich evocation of a particularly exuberant and fleeting moment in history.

Book cover of The Making of Buddhist Modernism

Patrick Ussher Author Of Stoicism & Western Buddhism: A Reflection on Two Philosophical Ways of Life

From my list on modern-day adaptations of Buddhism and Stoicism.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve long been interested in what different traditions have to say about how to live our best lives. While a graduate student, I naturally drifted towards studying both Stoicism and Buddhism and wrote my MA dissertation on a comparison of both (which ultimately, much later, became the basis for my book). During my time as a Ph.D. student, I was actively involved in the Modern Stoicism project. As well as running the blog for the project, I was also involved, along with a team of academics and psychotherapists, in creating adaptations of that ancient philosophy for the modern world. I also draw on both philosophies in coping with chronic illness.

Patrick's book list on modern-day adaptations of Buddhism and Stoicism

Patrick Ussher Why did Patrick love this book?

McMahon’s book was a real opener for me as a practising Buddhist in my early 20s.

I’d always naturally assumed that the Buddhism I practised was essentially the same as the Buddhism of any other time and place. McMahon’s penetrating analysis of the differences between ancient and ‘Western’ Buddhism shattered that illusion, showing me that the Buddhism I followed was mainly the product of Buddhism’s encounter with the modern, Western world.

I deeply valued the doors McMahon opened for me: suddenly, I could take a much larger view of the Buddhist tradition, and I also came to realize how the various manifestations of philosophies and religions are interesting not just for what they teach but also because of what they can reveal about the societies that practise them.

By David L. McMahan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Making of Buddhist Modernism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book, David McMahan offers the first comprehensive attempt to chart the development of "modern Buddhism." His position is critical but empathetic: while he presents modern Buddhism as a construction of numerous parties with varying interests, he does not reduce it to a mistake, a misrepresentation, or a fabrication. Rather, he presents modern Buddhism as a complex historical process constituted by a variety of responses - sometimes trivial, often profound - to some of the most important concerns of the modern era.

Book cover of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

Liz Heinecke Author Of Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light

From my list on meeting fascinating historical figures.

Why am I passionate about this?

I adore non-fiction books that read like novels. After ten years of working in research labs, my master’s degree in biology led me to a new career in science writing. I recently dove into the worlds of narrative non-fiction and history when I wrote Radiant, the Dancer, The Scientist and a Friendship Forged in Light. Immersing myself in Belle Époque Paris to research and intertwine the stories of Marie Curie and the inventor/dancer Loie Fuller helped me discover a passion for telling the stories of important figures forgotten by history. 

Liz's book list on meeting fascinating historical figures

Liz Heinecke Why did Liz love this book?

In Portrait of a Marriage, Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw beautifully brings John Steinbeck’s first wife Carol into the spotlight. The impeccably researched narrative lays out the path of a ten-year marriage doomed to fail, even as Carol shapes John into one of America’s great writers. I couldn’t put it down. 

By Susan Shillinglaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Carol and John Steinbeck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Carol Henning Steinbeck, writer John Steinbeck's first wife, was his creative anchor, the inspiration for his great work of the 1930s, culminating in The Grapes of Wrath. When they met at Lake Tahoe in 1928, their attachment was immediate, their personalities meshing in creative synergy. Carol was unconventional, artistic, and compelling. During the formative years of Steinbeck's career, when they lived in San Francisco, Pacific Grove, and Los Gatos, their modernist circle included Ed Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, and Lincoln Steffens. In many ways Carol's story is all too familiar: a creative and intelligent woman subsumes her own life and work…

Book cover of Prae, Vol. 1

Rocco Gangle Author Of Francois Laruelle's Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction and Guide

From Rocco's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Logician Metaphysician Free jazz fanatic Juggler

Rocco's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Rocco Gangle Why did Rocco love this book?

There’s nothing quite like discovering an author you’ve never heard of who makes you want to find everything you can by them, the kind of writer who feels like a secret you can’t keep to yourself.

After devouring the sprawling, beautiful, delicate, vulgar, and voluptuous masterpiece that is Prae, something compels me to stop total strangers in the street: “Have you read Szentkuthy? You must…”.

Before Tim Wilkinson’s recent translations, this early 20th-century Hungarian modernist has remained almost entirely unknown outside of esoteric literary circles.

This is literature as diatribe, as rhapsody, as a profoundly conscious immersion in the surreality of everyday life. In a later work, Szentkuthy aptly describes his literary style: “…not an apprehensive, exaggerated self-consciousness, but experiments of primal vitality, which are in a special biological relationship with form…”

By Miklos Szentkuthy, Tim Wilkinson (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Considered an eerie attack on realism, when first published in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy's debut novel Prae so astonished Hungarian critics that many deemed it monstrous, derogatorily referred to Szentkuthy as cosmopolitan, and classified him alien to Hungarian culture. Incomparable and unprecedented in Hungarian literature, Prae compels recognition as a serious contribution to modernist fiction, as ambitious in its aspirations as Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu. With no traditional narration and no psychologically motivated characters, in playing with voices, temporality, and events, while fiction, Prae is more what Northrop Frye calls an anatomy (à la Lucian, Rabelais, &…

Book cover of From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

Witold Rybczynski Author Of Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City

From my list on architecture for non-architects.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I’ve written more than twenty books on a variety of subjects, I was trained as an architect and I’ve designed and built houses, researched low cost housing, and taught budding architects for four decades. I was architecture critic for Wigwag and Slate and I’ve written for numerous national magazines and newspapers. Perhaps more important, my wife and I built our own house, mixing concrete, sawing wood, and hammering nails. I wrote a book about that, too.

Witold's book list on architecture for non-architects

Witold Rybczynski Why did Witold love this book?

If you’ve ever wondered why modern buildings look the way they do—and look so different from say, the buildings of our grandparents’ generation—you cannot do better than read this collection of essays that examines the current state of modern architecture. Glazer, a sociologist who was a noted public intellectual, brings a down-to-earth intelligence and a sharp eye to his subject.

By Nathan Glazer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From a Cause to a Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Modernism in architecture and urban design has failed the American city. This is the decisive conclusion that renowned public intellectual Nathan Glazer has drawn from two decades of writing and thinking about what this architectural movement will bequeath to future generations. In From a Cause to a Style, he proclaims his disappointment with modernism and its impact on the American city. Writing in the tradition of legendary American architectural critics Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, Glazer contends that modernism, this new urban form that signaled not just a radical revolution in style but a social ambition to enhance the conditions…