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

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (also rec’d by Irvine WelshJoan DidionLin-Manuel Miranda & Richard Branson)

“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

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (also rec’d by Susan Orlean)

“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 Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (also rec’d by Elena Ferrante & Emily Ratajkowski)

“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)

Looking for an Amazon alternative? Support local, independent booksellers by shopping Colson Whitehead’s reading list – and hundreds of other celebrity book recommendations – through Radical Reads’ Bookshop page.

Categories: Writers