Since his debut novel The Intuitionist came out in 1999, Colson Whitehead has emerged as a vital voice in contemporary American literature, blending elements of speculative fiction with astute social commentary. Born in New York City in 1969, his groundbreaking, genre-defying works have won him two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
In 2016, Whitehead released The Underground Railroad, a gripping narrative that reimagines the Underground Railroad as a literal network of tunnels and trains, offering a visceral examination of the legacy of slavery. His 2019 book The Nickel Boys – a searing piece of historical fiction inspired by the real-life story of a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida – also provides incisive commentary on the enduring impact of racism and inequality in America.
In a reading list for CBC, Whitehead shared 5 books that have most influenced his life’s work. From Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece on loneliness to ZZ Packer’s powerful debut, explore his recommendations below – and check out the bookshelves of other celebrated writers here.
Colson Whitehead’s Reading List
“Perhaps my favorite novel? Re-read it after 25 years and was stunned by its incandescent power. Helped immensely with rethinking how to calibrate fantastic effects, which came in handy with The Underground Railroad.” -CW
Blue Laws by Kevin Young
“Young’s new and selected poems are a testament to his fierce intelligence and wide-roving inquiries. Whether tackling film noir or Amistad rebels, Basquiat or the blues, he never fails to illuminate some new corner of the world.” -CW
“A new addition to my gallery of favorites, this nimble memoir is an eccentric masterpiece. Birds! More birds! Macdonald’s relentless pursuit of personal and universal truth will leave you mesmerized.” -CW
“A posthumous collection that gathers 40-plus stories from this overlooked writer and gives them a worthy showcase. Autobiographical fiction like an intimate conversation in the wee hours, Pall Mall smoke filling the air.” -CW
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
“With her new novel on the way, it’s worth revisiting ZZ’s masterful debut collection. These are stories with a bite, sneaky and wise. Start with ‘The Ant of the Self’ and ‘Brownies.'” -CW
(via CBC; photo by the Williston Northampton School)
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