The most recommended books on the sociology of literature

Who picked these books? Meet our 16 experts.

16 authors created a book list connected to the sociology of literature, and here are their favorite sociology of literature books.
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Book cover of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606

Susan Doran Author Of From Tudor to Stuart: The Regime Change from Elizabeth I to James I

From my list on the reigns of James VI of Scotland and I of England.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a Professor of early-modern British History at the University of Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, who was a specialist in the Tudor period, especially the life and reign of Elizabeth I. However, while doing research over the past six years, I became excited by the politics, religion, and culture of the Jacobean period. James I’s reign had been a topic I taught in a week to undergraduates, but I realised that I didn’t do justice to this rich and important period. Not only is it fascinating in its own right, but James’s reign had a huge impact on a long stretch of British and world history.

Susan's book list on the reigns of James VI of Scotland and I of England

Susan Doran Why did Susan love this book?

I love this book because it combines history and literature, doing justice to both. By setting Lear and Macbeth in their cultural and political contexts, Professor Shapiro has given me new insights into both plays. Before seeing them again, I’ll go back to this book.

Shapiro is a model for me of an academic historian who successfully addresses a wider audience by avoiding academic jargon, explaining the unfamiliar, and telling a good story. He wears his great scholarship lightly, but he has done a huge amount of research and has a mastery of his subject.

By James Shapiro,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America, shows how the tumultuous events in 1606 influenced three of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies written that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. “The Year of Lear is irresistible—a banquet of wisdom” (The New York Times Book Review).

In the years leading up to 1606, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

It was a memorable year in England as…


Book cover of A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846

Jonatha Ceely Author Of Mina

From my list on understanding women in 19th century England.

Why am I passionate about this?

Some years ago, I believed that after I had read the “famous” 19th-century novelists Jane Austen at the beginning of the century, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens more or less in the middle, and Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton at the end, I had “done” the century and was disappointed that there was no more of worth to entertain me. Wrong, of course. Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish) was a revelation; Catherine Maria Sedgewick (American) opened my eyes to New England; Margaret Oliphant (Scottish) combined the “weird,” spiritual, and a ruthless realism about family dysfunction. So I'm still reading. The 19th-century novels of Great Britain and America are an avocation and a passion.

Jonatha's book list on understanding women in 19th century England

Jonatha Ceely Why did Jonatha love this book?

There is something magical about this book. It’s a brilliant piece of research and a touching evocation of a particular summer when, among other things, the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were secretly planning their elopement, Tennyson was planning a walking tour in Switzerland that included a visit to Charles Dickens, P. T. Barnum was touring with “General Tom Thumb,” and the artist Benjamin Haydon was approaching suicide. I was bowled over by the richness of lives lived packed into just two hundred pages.

By Alethea Hayter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Wine and dine with Victorian London's literati in a heatwave in one of the first ever group biographies, introduced by Francesca Wade (author of Square Haunting).

Though she loved the heat she could do nothing but lie on the sofa and drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo .

'Never bettered.' Guardian
'Brilliant.' Julian Barnes
'Wholly original.' Craig Brown
'A pathfinder.' Richard Holmes
'Extraordinary.' Penelope Lively

June 1846. As London swelters in a heatwave - sunstroke strikes, meat rots, ice is coveted - a glamorous coterie of writers and artists spend their summer wining, dining and opining.

With the ringletted 'face…


Book cover of King John (Mis)Remembered

Sarah Covington Author Of The Devil from Over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland

From my list on history’s villains and their surprising reputations.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a professor of history at the Graduate Center and Queens College at the City University of New York, where I'm also director of the Irish Studies program and the MA program in Biography and Memoir. My specialty, covered in five books that I’ve authored or co-edited, is English and Irish history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; my new book represents the culmination of a decade’s research devoted to Ireland. In addition to teaching British and Irish history, I offer more unusual and wide-ranging classes including the history of the devil, the history of crime and punishment, and the history of the body. My life is divided between New York City and mid-coast Maine.

Sarah's book list on history’s villains and their surprising reputations

Sarah Covington Why did Sarah love this book?

Like Nero, King John’s awful reputation has been subject to revision in recent years, though others insist that his “lechery and treachery,” not to mention his cruelty, still places him as England’s worst king. John’s image was rehabilitated in the sixteenth century, however, when the king, in Djordevic’s words, became a “virtual obsession” among writers, dramatists, and contemporary historians.  Shakespeare created a tragic John seeking to defend his crown from rival claimants, foreign invasion, and an intrusive pope, while Protestant writers displayed an even more favorable stance towards John, who had opposed an intrusive papacy. John-as-tyrant was a crowd-pleaser, however, which accounted for the production of plays and poems that continued the traditional portraits of the mad, bad king.   

By Igor Djordjevic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked King John (Mis)Remembered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

King John's evil reputation has outlasted and proved more enduring than that of Richard III, whose notoriety seemed ensured thanks to Shakespeare's portrayal of him. The paradox is even greater when we realize that this portrait of John endures despite Shakespeare's portrait of him in the play King John, where he hardly comes off as a villain at all. Here Igor Djordjevic argues that the story of John's transformation in cultural memory has never been told completely, perhaps because the crucial moment in John's change back to villainy is a literary one: it occurs at the point when the 'historiographic'…


Book cover of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity

Roy Adkins Author Of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago

From my list on Jane Austen.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was brought up in Maidenhead in Berkshire, a town on the River Thames to the west of London. After studying archaeology at University College, Cardiff, I worked for many years as a field archaeologist. I met my wife, Lesley, on an excavation at Milton Keynes, and we have worked together ever since, both in archaeology and as authors of archaeology and history books. It was only after studying the Napoleonic period, which was when Jane Austen lived and wrote, that I understood the context of her novels and came to a much deeper appreciation of them.

Roy's book list on Jane Austen

Roy Adkins Why did Roy love this book?

Nowadays, Jane Austen’s novels look superficially like historical romances, but she actually wrote contemporary novels for a contemporary audience, and they are much more complicated and subtle than they first appear. This book explains many of the mentions of people, places, and events in her novels that were obvious to her readers, but which are far from obvious now.

By Janine Barchas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Matters of Fact in Jane Austen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, Janine Barchas makes the bold assertion that Jane Austen's novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. Barchas is the first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen's fiction by taking full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online. According to Barchas, Austen plays confidently with the tension between truth and invention that characterizes the realist novel. Of course, the argument that Austen deployed famous names presupposes an active celebrity…


Book cover of Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

Michael Kulikowski Author Of The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

From my list on Rome in the third century.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up playing with toy Roman legionaries, marveling at Roman coins, and poring over diagrams of Roman military equipment and their astonishing feats of engineering, went back and forth between wanting to be a medievalist or a Classicist and ended up settling into the study of the late Roman empire and the way it completely transformed its Classical heritage. Along with writing books on that period, I love writing on much wider ancient and medieval themes in the London Review of Books and the TLS.

Michael's book list on Rome in the third century

Michael Kulikowski Why did Michael love this book?

This is a dense study of what was once cordoned off as ‘the Second Sophistic’, the flourishing of a revived Classical Greek culture under Roman hegemony. It’s the first really successful transformation of that perspective to a much broader vision of ‘being Greek under Rome’. It gets you to take seriously the many different ways in which language shapes identity, and places the medical writings of Galen and the sprawling histories of Cassius Dio back into the mainstream of Greek cultural history.

By Simon Swain,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Hellenism and Empire explores identity, politics, and culture in the Greek world of the first three centuries AD, the period known as the second sophistic. The sources of this identity were the words and deeds of classical Greece, and the emphasis placed on Greekness and Greek heritage was far greater now than at any other time. Yet this period is often seen as a time of happy consensualism between the Greek and Roman halves of the Roman Empire. The first part of the book shows that Greek identity came before any loyalty to Rome (and was indeed partly a reaction…


Book cover of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Asa Maria Bradley Author Of A Wolf's Hunger: A Sexy Fated Mates Paranormal Romance

From my list on the gods and world of Norse mythology.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Sweden surrounded by archaeology steeped in Viking history, which fueled my interest in Norse mythology. For example, Uppåkra, the largest and richest Iron Age settlement in Scandinavia, is only a few miles from my childhood home. When my seventh-grade history teacher noticed my fascination with the Viking myths, he started recommending me books. Ever since, I’ve read extensively about the Norse pantheon, and its stories inspire my own writing. I’ve also taken several research trips to historical Viking settlements in Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland.

Asa's book list on the gods and world of Norse mythology

Asa Maria Bradley Why did Asa love this book?

The very fact that we have written records of the Viking myths, other than Runestones, is thanks to Icelandic historian, poet, and politician Snorri Sturluson. His Icelandic Sagas inspired many writers, including Tolkien and Lewis. In her biography of this influential medieval writer, Ms. Brown not only tells us about Sturluson’s life but also summarizes much of his writing and puts it into context with Norse fables. If you’ve ever wondered how much of the Viking stories were historical facts and how much of it is Sturluson’s imagination, this is a great book to read.

By Nancy Marie Brown,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Song of the Vikings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Indie Next pick for December 2012, Song of the Vikings brings to life Snorri Sturluson, wealthy chieftain, wily politician, witty storyteller, and the sole source of Viking lore for all of Western literature. Tales of one-eyed Odin, Thor and his mighty hammer, the trickster Loki, and the beautiful Valkyries have inspired countless writers, poets, and dreamers through the centuries, including Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman, and author Nancy Marie Brown brings alive the medieval Icelandic world where it all began. She paints a vivid picture of the Icelandic landscape, with its colossal glaciers and volcanoes, steaming hot…


Book cover of Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays

David McInnis Author Of Shakespeare and Lost Plays

From my list on to understand the history of Shakespeare's theatre.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a Shakespeare scholar with a particular interest in theatre history and the repertories of the London commercial playing companies of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. I’m particularly fascinated by the hundreds of plays written during this period that have not survived, whether as the result of fire, vandalism, censorship, or more mundane causes like a lack of interest in or opportunity for publication. The surviving plays from the period are the distinct minority; yet the plays lost to us were known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who often wrote in response to what else was being performed across London.

David's book list on to understand the history of Shakespeare's theatre

David McInnis Why did David love this book?

In the wake of Knutson’s work, a number of seminal studies of individual playing companies from Shakespeare’s London have appeared, but I particularly value Manley and MacLean’s for the prominence they give to the role of lost plays in the repertory of Lord Strange’s Men. This book normalised the understanding that if one is to study a companyits patron, its players, its performance venues (including touring), and its stylethen one cannot do so without attending to the plays once performed by the company but which have since been lost.

By Lawrence Manley, Sally-Beth MacLean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a brief period in the late Elizabethan Era an innovative company of players dominated the London stage. A fellowship of dedicated thespians, Lord Strange's Men established their reputation by concentrating on "modern matter" performed in a spectacular style, exploring new modes of impersonation, and deliberately courting controversy. Supported by their equally controversial patron, theater connoisseur and potential claimant to the English throne Ferdinando Stanley, the company included Edward Alleyn, considered the greatest actor of the age, as well as George Bryan, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips, William Kemp, and John Hemings, who later joined William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in…


Book cover of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future

Robert W. Stock Author Of Me and The Times: My wild ride from elevator operator to New York Times editor, columnist, and change agent (1967-97)

From Robert's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Journalist Punster Family-phile Ex-jock Friend

Robert's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Robert W. Stock Why did Robert love this book?

I bought Shakespeare in a Divided America in the misguided belief that the author was the son of an old friend and colleague. The other attraction was Shakespeare himself: My mother was a high school English teacher, and the words of the Bard were a lingua franca at our dinner table. The book did not disappoint! 

In a series of chapters that carry the reader from the 1830s to the 2020s, Shapiro shows how Shakespeare’s plays have been entwined with the politics and culture of the nation on subjects ranging from race to manifest destiny, from immigration to same sex love.

The author is a professor of English at Columbia University who has written award-winning books about Shakespeare. What he offers here is an exciting intellectual journey. Drawing from original sources, he connects the dots to show how Othello was used by John Quincy Adams to support his opposition to…

By James Shapiro,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Shakespeare in a Divided America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year * A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist * A New York Times Notable Book

A timely exploration of what Shakespeare's plays reveal about our divided land.

"In this sprightly and enthralling book . . . Shapiro amply demonstrates [that] for Americans the politics of Shakespeare are not confined to the public realm, but have enormous relevance in the sphere of private life." -The Guardian (London)

The plays of William Shakespeare are rare common ground in the United States. For well over two centuries, Americans of all stripes-presidents…


Book cover of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England

Jonatha Ceely Author Of Mina

From my list on understanding women in 19th century England.

Why am I passionate about this?

Some years ago, I believed that after I had read the “famous” 19th-century novelists Jane Austen at the beginning of the century, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens more or less in the middle, and Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton at the end, I had “done” the century and was disappointed that there was no more of worth to entertain me. Wrong, of course. Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish) was a revelation; Catherine Maria Sedgewick (American) opened my eyes to New England; Margaret Oliphant (Scottish) combined the “weird,” spiritual, and a ruthless realism about family dysfunction. So I'm still reading. The 19th-century novels of Great Britain and America are an avocation and a passion.

Jonatha's book list on understanding women in 19th century England

Jonatha Ceely Why did Jonatha love this book?

Curious about the century that produced works as varied as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Bleak House? This is the book for you! Because it is organized by topics—money and social precedence to begin and the workhouse and death to end—it is easy to dip in and out of. It has added greatly to my understanding of 19th-century fiction. The invaluable glossary at the end lists terms that are strange to us in the 21st century and gives clear brief definitions. Now I know that loo was not an English euphemism for a toilet and that a ha-ha was not a joke! 

By Daniel Pool,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "delightful reader's companion" (The New York Times) to the great nineteenth-century British novels of Austen, Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes, and more, this lively guide clarifies the sometimes bizarre maze of rules and customs that governed life in Victorian England.

For anyone who has ever wondered whether a duke outranked an earl, when to yell "Tally Ho!" at a fox hunt, or how one landed in "debtor's prison," this book serves as an indispensable historical and literary resource. Author Daniel Pool provides countless intriguing details (did you know that the "plums" in Christmas plum pudding were actually raisins?) on the…


Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris

Joan DeJean Author Of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

From my list on what makes a city great, especially Paris.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve lived in cities all my adult life and currently divide my time between Paris and Philadelphia. And while those two cities are strikingly different places, they have in common the fact that they are both great walking cities –- urban centers that can be explored on foot and easily enjoyed by pedestrians. Walking cities, I believe, provide not only an ideal context for today’s tourists but also a model for a future in which urban dwellers become less reliant on automobiles and urban centers more open to foot traffic than to vehicular pollution and congestion. The books I’ll recommend deal in various ways with the building and rebuilding of visionary cities, and of Paris in particular.

Joan's book list on what makes a city great, especially Paris

Joan DeJean Why did Joan love this book?

Beginning in the seventeenth century at the moment when Paris was redesigned, it became a great literary city and the center of the French literary tradition. For anyone interested in how the most important French writers have celebrated their city and depicted the ways in which Paris has changed over the centuries and the impact such changes have had on its inhabitants this is the perfect book.

By Anna-Louise Milne,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

No city more than Paris has had such a constant and deep association with the development of literary forms and cultural ideas. The idea of the city as a space of literary self-consciousness started to take hold in the sixteenth century. By 1620, where this volume begins, the first in a long line of extraordinary works of the human imagination, in which the city represented itself to itself, had begun to find form in print. This collection follows that process through to the present day. Beginning with the 'salon', followed by the hybrid culture of libertinage and the revolutionary hotbeds…