Mass Humanities Summer Reading List

Need a good book for summer? Whether you want something to relax with in the hammock, pass time with on the beach, or make a vacation — or dinner party — count with some serious intellectual vigor, we’ve got you covered. These 11 books — selected by Mass Humanities staff and board members — include poetry, fiction, history, even mystery. They all promise to keep your mind happily engaged throughout the lazy days of summer!


Russell Banks

“This is a big, bold historical novel about the radical abolitionist and domestic terrorist John Brown as told by one of his three surviving sons, Owen Brown. Meticulously researched and brilliantly written, this is a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about one of the most significant figures in 19th-century America.”

Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History

Hampton Sides

“This is the story of Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and like Sides’s two previous history books (Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder), it reads like a well-crafted novel.”

Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart

“This is a novel set in the near future, and it gets at the root of what makes us human in a fully automated society that has conquered the physical and esthetic impacts of aging. What role does love and friendship have in this world?”

On China

Henry Kissinger

“This is perhaps the most informed and, in some parts, most riveting account of the transformation of China since the opening of relations with the U.S. in the 1970s. A must-read to understand the emerging new world economic order.”

In the Skin of a Lion

Michael Ondaatje

“A beautifully written book. Keep in mind while reading that this work has been described as “ex-centric” — meaning it deals with the figures who are usually on the sidelines of history — and that it is a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic. Which is all the more striking since it’s about the development of Toronto in the mid-1900s.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

“Based on letters exchanged among various members of the Society and Julie Ashton, a London-based writer, this novel is situated in post-war London and the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans during World War II. With some history and lots of discussion about literature, it’s a good read and imparts new observations about the war.”

The Girl from Zanzibar

Roger King

“Mostly a whodunit/romantic comedy, but the author, who lives in western Massachusetts, uses the genre to raise questions about immigration, foreign aid, history, and multiculturalism. The novel’s setting moves between Zanzibar, London’s Bayswater district during the Thatcher regime, and a small New England college. It was published about a decade ago, but the situations resonate with present day concerns. And the author, a white Englishman, also pulls off the very complex job of writing persuasively from perspective of a woman of color.”


Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore

“Two Boston area historians wrote this novel in two 18th-century genres: the picaresque and the epistolary narrative. It is a bawdy view of Boston in the 1760s, as the colonists begin to chafe under British rule and taxes. The hypocrisy of calling for independence while continuing to condone enslavement of Africans is a powerful secondary theme, as is the status of women and artists.”


Daphne du Maurier

“Probably best remembered in its 1940 filmic guise, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, this book sealed the literary success of its author. The main ‘character’ is Manderley, the Cornwall country estate of Maxim de Winter. It is to Manderlay that de Winter brings his much younger bride, the nameless narrator of the tale, and it is there that she learns the legacy of her husband’s first wife, the famous, beautiful, and dead Rebecca. It is also in Manderley that she learns the truth about Rebecca’s life and death. This is a novel that’s likely to haunt all readers.”


Richard Wilbur

“What strikes about Anterooms — and Richard Wilbur’s poetry in general — is his ability to pinpoint humanity’s conflicting emotions and values and relate them to simple real-world observations. He allows us to explore our deepest truths without the noise of personal drama that many other poets employ. And he does it with impeccable yet playful meter and rhyme that serve as an unobtrusive framework for his ideas.”

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas

“This is the story of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the time of Hitler. He was part of the plot to assassinate the Fuehrer. How can a theologian be involved in a conspiracy to kill? How did ordinary Germans face the evil of the Third Reich? This biography delves into these and many other questions by following the life of this extraordinarily courageous man, who said, ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”

Author: Brendan Tapley

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