The best books about the working class

24 authors have picked their favorite books about the working class and why they recommend each book.

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The Five

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

The five women who were Jack the Ripper’s canonical victims have always been just that, his victims. Rubenhold gives them back their identities, in their own right, as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives and challenges the ‘traditional’ view. For three of them, there is no evidence that they were prostitutes, but all five were women battling personal demons who were down on their luck. They were Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. The Five is not the story of their deaths, but their lives.

The Five

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE #1 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NONFICTION 2019
'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…


Who am I?

I often feel as if I live with one foot in the present, and one in the past. It’s always been the little-known stories that fascinate me the most, especially women’s history. Their lives can be harder to research, but more rewarding for that. As a writer and historian, it has been wonderful to discover the histories of intriguing but ‘overlooked’ women, and to share their tales. I hope you enjoy reading the books I have selected as much as I did!


I wrote...

A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History

By Joanne Major, Sarah Murden,

Book cover of A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History

What is my book about?

Have you ever heard the story of Sinnetta Lambourne, the Romany girl who was the wife of Queen Elizabeth II’s great-grandfather? Her husband, the Reverend Charles (Charley) Cavendish-Bentinck was a man ahead of his times in his outlook. He followed his heart, against the wishes of his family and titled relatives. A generation earlier, Charley’s parents had been at the centre of a Regency-era scandal. His mother, married to the ‘richest commoner’ in the country, was the Duke of Wellington’s niece. Just weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, she eloped with her lover…

Discover the untold story of the British royal family’s recent history.

Love and Theft

By Eric Lott,

Book cover of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

A highly opinionated, and thus sometimes frustrating, analysis of the pre-Civil War minstrel show, and how it impacted both oppressed African-Americans and the working-class whites who made the shows so popular. This was the first major book to advance the idea that the minstrel show was not only an exploitation of black culture (the “theft”), but also appreciated that culture and began its integration into the American musical mainstream (the “love”), which would prove to have profound implications in decades to come. An influential book that has been frequently cited in subsequent works.

Love and Theft

By Eric Lott,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For over two centuries, America has celebrated the very black culture it attempts to control and repress, and nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the strange practice of blackface performance. Born of extreme racial and class conflicts, the blackface minstrel show sometimes usefully intensified them. Based on the appropriation of black dialect, music, and dance, minstrelsy at once applauded and lampooned black culture, ironically contributing to a
"blackening of America." Drawing on recent research in cultural studies and social history, Eric Lott examines the role of the blackface minstrel show in the political struggles of the years leading…


Who am I?

I am a former network television executive who is fascinated by the history of mass media and have authored or co-authored nine books and many articles on the subject. These include The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present and Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. I’m particularly drawn to subjects that are underexplored, or which seem to be greatly misunderstood today. I quickly learned that you are not likely to earn a living from writing, so I decided to write about subjects I cared about, and hopefully add something to our knowledge of cultural history. I became more aware of what the professional minstrel show was really like while researching Lost Sounds, based on original accounts, recordings, and films.


I wrote...

The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television

By Tim Brooks,

Book cover of The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television

What is my book about?

The big time, professional minstrel show lasted much longer than most people realize, from its origins in the 1840s to the early television era in the 1950s—more than 110 years. What was it, really, and how did it change over this long period? Why was it considered acceptable for so long, by almost everyone—even by many black Americans? What finally brought it down? This book explores its entire history, focusing particularly on the 20th-century mass media we know so well, radio, recordings, film, and television. Minstrel shows were featured in all of them, often performed by major stars and sometimes by blacks themselves. Major controversies are described, as is the surprising popularity of the format in Britain. This concise history of a now-controversial form of entertainment shows how we can too easily accept widely endorsed beliefs.

Book cover of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

A non-runner begins running in prison and discovers its therapeutic benefits that help him do his time and start him on a journey of self-discovery. Having been an early morning runner for many years, I appreciated the protagonist’s descriptions of frosty early morning runs, which I think are some of the best in literature.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

By Alan Sillitoe,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps one of the most revered works of fiction in the twentieth-century, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a modern classic about integrity, courage, and bucking the system. Its title story recounts the story of a reform school cross-country runner who seizes the perfect opportunity to defy the authority that governs his life. It is a pure masterpiece. From there the collection expands even further from the touching “On Saturday Afternoon” to the rollicking “The Decline and Fall and Frankie Buller.” Beloved for its lean prose, unforgettable protagonists, and real-life wisdom, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner…


Who am I?

I have been a runner for 50 years and a coach for 30 years. From 2001-2016 I was the coach of Team USA Minnesota Distance Training Center. During that time I coached 24 U.S. National Champions, including an Olympian & 2 USATF Running Circuit Champions, at 1500 meters, 3000 meters, and 10,000 meters on the track; the mile, 10k, 15k, 10 miles, half-marathon, 20k, 25k, and marathon on the road; 4k, 6k, 8k and 10k in cross country.  Athletes I coached qualified for 30 U.S. national teams competing in IAAF World Championships in cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, and road, and achieved 73 top-three finishes in U.S. Championships. 


I wrote...

The River Road: Becoming a Runner in 1972

By Dennis Barker,

Book cover of The River Road: Becoming a Runner in 1972

What is my book about?

The River Road is an evocative novel about becoming a runner in 1972. Filled with compelling stories of runners, running, history, the 1972 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials and the Munich Olympics, it brings to life an era in which the U.S. competed for gold in nearly every distance running event. As many of the sport’s icons dominate their events in Eugene and prepare for Munich, fifteen-year-old Lenny prepares for his first season of varsity cross country. Inspired by Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, Lenny also learns that Olympic distance runners have come from Minnesota and trained on the same River Road on which he runs. A world of running lore that he never knew existed is opened to him and helps him begin to explore and realize his own ability to run.

The Man Who Never Died

By William M. Adler,

Book cover of The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

I devoured this book on the recommendation of my friend Otis Gibbs, a songwriter with a particular interest in the great tradition of songs of, by, and for the working class. “Educate – Agitate – Organize,” reads the Joe Hill mural painted on the side of a rare books store in Salt Lake City, where the Wobbly songwriter was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1915. In The Man Who Never Died (2011), journalist William M. Adler contextualizes the vital importance of songs like Hill’s to the union movement, and he uncovers new details about the activist’s controversial conviction.

The Man Who Never Died

By William M. Adler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Who Never Died as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1914, Joe Hill, the prolific songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies), was convicted of murder in Utah and sentenced to death by firing squad, igniting international controversy. In the first major biography of the radical historical icon, William M. Adler explores an extraordinary life and presents persuasive evidence of Hill's innocence. Hill would become organized labor's most venerated martyr, and a hero to folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. His story shines a beacon on the early-twentieth-century American experience and exposes the roots of issues critical to the twenty-first…


Who am I?

I’m the author of five books on subjects ranging from comedy and music to sports and pants (specifically, blue jeans). I’m a longtime Boston Globe contributor, a former San Francisco Chronicle staff critic, and a onetime editor for Rolling Stone. I help develop podcasts and other programming for Sirius and Pandora. I teach in the Journalism department at Emerson College, and I am the Program Director for the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival and the co-founder of Lit Crawl Boston.


I wrote...

Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

By James Sullivan,

Book cover of Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

What is my book about?

“Protest” music is largely perceived as an unsubtle art form, a topical brand of songwriting that preaches to the converted. But popular music of all types has long given listeners food for thought. Fifty years before Vietnam, before the United States entered World War I, some of the most popular sheet music in the country featured anti-war tunes. The labor movement of the early decades of the century was fueled by its communal “songbook.” The Civil Rights movement was soundtracked not just by the gorgeous melodies of “Strange Fruit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but hundreds of other gospel-tinged ballads and blues.

My book is an anecdotal history of the progressive movements that have shaped the growth of the United States and the songs of all genres that have accompanied and defined them.

Mill Town

By Kerri Arsenault,

Book cover of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains

A truly engaging personal history of a paper mill’s impact on a working-class town in Maine. Arsenault tracks rising public health hazards and the decline of the working class through her rural hometown and over the course of her life, reckoning with the meaning and nature of home and abandonment.

Mill Town

By Kerri Arsenault,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Mill Town "[Kerri] Arsenault pays loving homage to her family's tight-knit Maine town even as she examines the cancers that have stricken so many residents."-The New York Times Book Review

"Mill Town is a powerful, blistering, devastating book. Kerri Arsenault is both a graceful writer and a grieving daughter in search of answers and ultimately, justice. In telling the story of the town where generations of her family have lived and died, she raises important and timely questions." -Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance

Kerri Arsenault grew up in the rural working class town of Mexico, Maine. For over 100…


Who am I?

We had money for a while when I was a kid in the Midwest and then, suddenly, we did not. I watched my world of opportunity change dramatically almost overnight, and my mother struggle to redefine herself as not only a mother but now also a breadwinner. It took time for me to understand that the questions I was asking then about gender and access to money weren’t unique to my life, or the lives of Midwestern white women; they got at some grand-scale problems that people had been writing about for a long time about gender and capitalism. Those are the works that helped me formulate my own memoir.


I wrote...

Gentrifier: A Memoir

By Anne Elizabeth Moore,

Book cover of Gentrifier: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 2016, a Detroit arts organization grants writer and artist Anne Elizabeth Moore a free house—a room of her own, à la Virginia Woolf—in Detroit’s majority-Bangladeshi “Banglatown.” Accompanied by her cats, Moore moves to the bungalow in her new city where she gardens, befriends neighborhood youth, and grows to intimately understand civic collapse and community solidarity. When the troubled history of her prize house comes to light, Moore finds her life destabilized by the aftershocks of the housing crisis and governmental corruption.

Part investigation, part comedy of a vexing city, and part love letter to girlhood, Gentrifier examines capitalism, property ownership, and whiteness, asking if we can ever really win when violence and profit are inextricably linked with victory. One of NPR’s Best Books of 2021.

Martin Eden

By Jack London,

Book cover of Martin Eden

While admittedly not a “war” book, Jack London’s masterful novel illustrates notions associated with war and society in an artful way. And he does it within two characters… a truth seeker and a believer in the establishment. From the rich and powerful to the impoverished with no voice, he clearly understood what is behind the masks we don in society. Fantastic read.

Martin Eden

By Jack London,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Martin Eden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The semiautobiographical Martin Eden is the most vital and original character Jack London ever created. Set in San Francisco, this is the story of Martin Eden, an impoverished seaman who pursues, obsessively and aggressively, dreams of education and literary fame. London, dissatisfied with the rewards of his own success, intended Martin Eden as an attack on individualism and a criticism of ambition; however, much of its status as a classic has been conferred by admirers of its ambitious protagonist. Andrew Sinclair's wide-ranging introduction discusses the conflict between London's support of socialism and his powerful self-will. Sinclair also explores the parallels…


Who am I?

Living through the Iraq War compelled me to honestly challenge who I was, what I had believed in, and reshape who I am. One aspect to emerge from that is the belief that there is no good war. War is the worst of all endeavors, born from fundamentally weak minds that are blind to imagination and vision. But while I have had a passion for writing about war and speaking out against it, I feel it’s important for people to look beyond my work as just another veteran writing just another war book. In both of my books, the war is a character more than anything else. 


I wrote...

Playing Soldier

By F. Scott Service,

Book cover of Playing Soldier

What is my book about?

As an only child isolated within a troubled family, F. Scott Service found solace in fantasy and imagination, until a fateful day led to the discovery of his father’s Korean War field jacket. What began as innocent emulation and approval, eventually spiraled into a calamitous loss. Faced with a grievous divorce, post-traumatic stress, homelessness, substance abuse, and failure, one night communing with a loaded pistol became the mechanism for self-clarity.

Playing Soldier powerfully captures the unlearning of expectation, the celebration of individuality, and the nourishing of self-acceptance once buried by cultural stamps of approval and societal convention. Braided with humor, courage, fear, despair, and hope, his unflinching story of passage into adulthood and beyond stands as an inspiring example of how he re-forged his true, original self.

Blue Collar Aristocrats

By E. E. Lemasters,

Book cover of Blue Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working-Class Tavern

LeMasters hung out at a tavern in Wisconsin from 1967 to 1972, talking to factory workers who held well-paying, unionized jobs in the heyday of American industrial production. Working-class lives are so different now that I wish I could enter a time machine and travel back to the 1960s and talk to working-class men then. LeMasters’s book is as close as one can get to doing that. He describes the outlook of the tavern regulars on their work, their families, and the world around them. Despite their prosperity, they express attitudes about public life that, in some respects, would not sound out of place in a focus group of working-class adults today.   

Blue Collar Aristocrats

By E. E. Lemasters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blue Collar Aristocrats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“LeMasters’ book is a valuable and popularly written source of information on the attitudes of working class men and women. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal



Blue-Collar Aristocrats is a major statement about a group of Americans too little understood and too long ignored by by the country's decision- and policy-makers. Thanks to the work of E. E. LeMasters, we now have a rare and human insight into the lives, feelings, attitudes, and problems of America's blue-collar aristocrats—one that has the potential both to add to our knowledge and to contribute toward solutions to some of our nation's broadest social problems.



“LeMasters has…


Who am I?

I’m a sociologist who studies American family life. About 20 years ago, I began to see signs of the weakening of family life (such as more single-parent families) among high-school educated Americans. These are the people we often call the “working class.” It seemed likely that this weakening reflected the decline of factory jobs as globalization and automation have proceeded. So I decided to learn as much as I could about the rise and decline of working-class families. The books I am recommending help us to understand what happened in the past and what’s happening now.


I wrote...

Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America

By Andrew J. Cherlin,

Book cover of Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America

What is my book about?

In recent years, I have followed national survey data which showed that the stable, marriage-based working-class family of the past was weakening before our eyes. I wanted to understand why, so I dove into the history of the working-class family; and I also looked in-depth at what has happened recently as the good factory jobs that supported most working-class men, and some working-class women, moved overseas or disappeared into computer chips. The result is my book, Labor’s Love Lost. I hope that Shakespeare isn’t upset about what I have done to his title.

Docherty

By William McIlvanney,

Book cover of Docherty

Another fine novel by a great writer who, like me, hailed from Ayrshire. I quote from it in my book. I became aware of William McIlvanney when I attended Kilmarnock Academy between 1967 and 1969 and his first novel Remedy is None was passed around the students in their final year at the school, before heading for University. Having a living, breathing novelist living in the town was really something, and it made us all think that perhaps we could become writers too! All of his books are excellent but Docherty touched me personally because it describes a mining community, similar to the town I grew up in, Galston. It also explores the linguistic tension between Scots and English which is the experience of most people growing up in the Lowlands of Scotland.

Docherty

By William McIlvanney,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'His face made a fist at the world. The twined remnant of umbilicus projected vulnerably. Hands, feet and prick. He had come equipped for the job.'

Newborn Conn Docherty, raw as a fresh wound, lies between his parents in their tenement room, with no birthright but a life's labour in the pits of his small town. But the world is changing, and, lying next to him, Conn's father Tam has decided that his son's life will be different from his own.

Gritty, dark and tender, McIlvanney's Docherty is a modern classic.


Who am I?

I grew up in a strong Scots–speaking environment just before the advent of television, so very much a Scottish village rather than the global village. Speaking several foreign languages and being able to study Scots language and literature at Edinburgh University gave me confidence and the realisation of how special Scots was, and how closely it is tied to the identity of the people and the land. The book is local, national, and international in outlook and is written from the heart and soul, with a strong influence of the Democratic Intellect thrown in to balance the passion. You can also hear me reading the book on Audible.


I wrote...

Scots: The Mither Tongue

By Billy Kay,

Book cover of Scots: The Mither Tongue

What is my book about?

Scots: The MitherTongue is a classic of contemporary Scottish culture. It is a passionately written history of how the Scots came to speak the way they do and acted as a catalyst for radical changes in attitude towards the language. Kay vigorously renews the social, cultural, and political debate on Scotland's linguistic future, and argues convincingly for the necessity to retain Scots for the nation to hold on to its intrinsic values. Language is central to people's existence, and this vivid account celebrates the survival of Scots in its dialects, literature, and song. The newspaper Scotland on Sunday chose Scots: The Mither Tongue as one of the best 100 Scottish books ever written. 

Last Orders

By Graham Swift,

Book cover of Last Orders

The adopted son and three friends of Jack Dodds set off on a day trip by car to the seaside to honor his last wish by disposing of his ashes. The story unfolds from the points of view of all the main characters: the reader learns of their ambitions, disappointments, secrets, and betrayals. Swift exposes the tensions inherent in grief that is both individual and shared. It is as if Jack’s death grants the mourners the clarity to understand their own lives as they fulfill his last order.

Last Orders

By Graham Swift,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 1996

The classic edition of one of the 20th Century's finest novels

Four men once close to Jack Dodds, a London butcher, meet to carry out his peculiar last wish: to have his ashes scattered into the sea at Margate. For reasons best known to herself, Jack's widow, Amy, declines to join them . . . On the surface a simple tale of an increasingly bizarre day's outing, this Booker-prize winning, internationally acclaimed novel is a resonant and classic exploration of the complexity and courage of ordinary lives. Intensely local but overwhelmingly universal, faithful to…


Who am I?

For three decades I have been the first violinist of the Takács Quartet, performing concerts worldwide and based at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I love the ways in which books, like music, offer new and surprising elements at different stages of life, providing companionship alongside joys and sorrows. 


I wrote...

Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home

By Edward Dusinberre,

Book cover of Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home

What is my book about?

For the first years after I moved to Colorado, my impractical strategy for overcoming homesickness was to avoid any music or books that inspired nostalgia. Thirty years later however, music seems to me a powerful way to connect past and present, triggering memories at the same time as it offers new experiences. When  I was unable to travel to England during the COVID-19 pandemic, I turned to the music and lives of composers whose relationships to home and travel shaped the pursuit of their craft—Antonín Dvořák, Béla Bartók, and Benjamin Britten. Distant Melodies tells the stories of their American sojourns as they try to reconcile new surroundings with nostalgia for their homelands. The backdrop is my own changing relationship to England, Elgar’s music, and the idea of home. 

Ava's Man

By Rick Bragg,

Book cover of Ava's Man

Rick Bragg heard of his grandfather all his life, a man of the Great Depression with seven children, and a knack for beating bad luck time and time again. Ava’s Man chronicles his mother’s upbringing by a father who struggled with alcohol, a man despite his faults, who took care of his own, a time when having something meant that you ate that day. 

Rick Bragg excels at narrative non-fiction, and with his incredible sense of place, understanding of the culture and of the people, he shows those unfamiliar with the area what it means to be Southern. While his stories can often be sad, and tragic, he never fails to interject humor, wisdom, and understanding of those who live in this region.

Ava's Man

By Rick Bragg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ava's Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • With the same emotional generosity and effortlessly compelling storytelling that made All Over But the Shoutin’ a beloved bestseller, Rick Bragg continues his personal history of the Deep South.

This time he’s writing about his grandfather Charlie Bundrum, a man who died before Bragg was born but left an indelible imprint on the people who loved him. Drawing on their memories, Bragg reconstructs the life of an unlettered roofer who kept food on his family’s table through the worst of the Great Depression; a moonshiner who drank exactly one pint for every gallon he sold; an unregenerate…


Who am I?

As a born southerner, it comes as no surprise, I have a lot of love for the place I call home. My passion for reading and writing about this unique and individual region, and sharing some of its history, culture, and way of life is important to me. I find the South at times a misunderstood place and believe there are still some misconceptions that remain, even today. Through sharing the stories I love, I endeavor to impart, in some small way, the uniqueness of this region that many are drawn to, and why those of us who grew up here, love it so.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Saints of Swallow Hill: A Fascinating Depression Era Historical Novel

What is my book about?

Set against the background of the Great Depression, this lyrical new novel is a powerful story of courage, survival, and friendship. Deep in the American South there once existed turpentine labor camps, notoriously squalid and hazardous environments. 

Swallow Hill is such a labor camp and three individuals, Delwood Reese, Rae Lynn Cobb, and Cornelia Riddle, each end up at this labor camp for their own personal reasons. There they come up against a dangerous boss man, a woods rider who goes by the name of Crow. Even as the three forge a strong bond, they will be forced to come to terms with the events of their past in order to escape the slave-like encampment, and seize the chance to begin again. 

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