Updated: I have a longer list of books about Philadelphia with a good reputation here.
There is a lot of reading to be done about Philadelphia.
Let me show you the 10 books you have to read if you’re from, living in or going to the Philadelphia region, including a handful of which you should read regardless of geography.
The historical capital of the country is home to legendary books like The Philadelphia Negro, the work by W.E.B. Dubois that catapulted modern race and socioeconomic research. Former Daily News columnist-turned-defender of historical accuracy Ron Avery put out a respected book called, A Concise History of Philadelphia, which naturally relates to far broader histories.
There are modern classics in their own right, like Diary of a City Priest, memoirs written by John McNamee – an Irish Catholic priest serving a North Philadelphia congregation – and adapted into a film of the same name that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Famed Daily News columnist (1974 to 1986) Pete Dexter, a National Book Award winner for his 1988 classic Paris Trout, set his first novel, a far less inspired, more violent piece called Brotherly Love, in Philadelphia.
The Badge of Honor novel series is a series of eight novels written by W.E.B. Griffin about the Philadelphia Police Department. Lisa Scottoline has an ongoing series of novels chronicling the plights of a small Center City law firm. There are wonderful picture books, like an historical account using Inquirer photographs and a popular collection of the murals in Philadelphia, fitting considering there are more there than anywhere else in the country.
These are all good books, but none are great.
So, if you get tricked into believing there aren’t true must-reads from Philadelphia then you haven’t scoured the shelves enough. Here are 10 books you should be required to read before you could say you’re from Philly.
The 10 best Philadelphia books
10. Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer by Roberta Alotta: In researching stories, I have contacted the Free Library on at least two occasions and been told they themselves use this handy guide to decipher the origination of Philadelphia’s streets. This resource, which details the history behind a great many of streets in Philadelphia, is a must – you have to know why your street name is called what it is.
9. The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists by Glen Macnow and Big Daddy Graham (2006): The pair from 610 WIP had another pretty decent book in 2003, The Great Philadelphia Fan Book, but this is newer and more interesting. This city is a sports town, arguably the best in the country.
8. Wonderland by Michael Bamberger (2004): This book has nothing to do with Philadelphia. It chronicles the 2002-2003 school year at Pennsbury High School, a mixed-income, racially diverse suburban school district in lower Bucks County, just outside Philadelphia. To know a city, we must understand its region. Philadelphia has a particularly chaotic relationship with its region, so a book like this is a must. The fact that former Inquirer reporter Bamberger does a great job of capturing a vibrant slice of suburban high school life is only an asset. Read this no matter where you live.
But Bobby nodded in silent agreement. He was in high school. Is there a time when fantasy is richer? You’re old enough to see a real glimpse of your adult self, but young enough to dream. Somehow you meld the two, the glimpse and the dream. Bobby knew the picture his mother carried ultimately came not from her mind but from his. He gave it to her, and she gave it back to him. Back and forth it went, back and forth. [Hardcover Page 23]
7. Rocky Stories by Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish (2006): Movies have been made about, in and surrounding this city. But no film has ever so affected and been so tied to a city than Rocky with Philadelphia. No clearer is that made than with the endless droves of tourists and locals who pilgrammage to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, just as Sylvester Stallone did. Two Pulitzer Prize winners took this idea and made a hell of an interesting read, visiting those steps everyday for a year and interviewing those who made the effort to run the steps. Gralish’s photos are vivid and Vitez’s words are often descriptive of what makes the phenomenon so important more than 30 years later. Read this no matter where you live.
6. Land of Giants by Steve Lopez: Big city daily newspapers were once famed for their metro columnists. Philadelphia has among the prouder traditions, none more celebrated than Steve Lopez. There is no clearer evidence than that this collection of his columns from the Inquirer, some 20 years old, are still worth reading. What is more fascinating is to watch his development as a writer and find the stories that affect him most – watching them find rebirth in his fiction work of the future.
5. Green Grass Grace by Shawn McBride: I don’t think any non-native Philadelphian would disagree the least explored portion of the city is the Northeast, its suburban-like enclave which is nothing and everything Philadelphian. No book better captures a slice of life there – this the story of a passionate boy in the 1980s – than McBride’s first and only novel. Read this no matter where you live.
4. The Philadelphia Reader by Philadelphia magazine staff: Philadelphia, as big, backward cities go, is known for its figures. Don’t let people fool you, this city is too large to have not created celebrities, those worth celebrating and deriding, but Philadelphia simply doesn’t contain them. This book, published by Temple University Press, collects the best profiles written on the biggest names that affect Philadelphia. Because it incorporates so many of the most important stories this city has seen over the past 30 years, it is wonderful shorthand to understand it.
3. Walking Broad by Bruce Buschel (2007): The newest edition to this list comes from a former Inquirer writer and native Philadelphian who embodies so much of the city. He hated it. He left it. He returned to walk the 13 miles of Broad Street and what follows is the absolute, most complete description of the Philadelphia condition I have ever read. If you ever wanted to understand big cities – Philly in particular – here it is.
2. Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger (1998): You never understood city politics or the urban challenges that face any metropolis than after reading this. Bissinger’s thick, obessively-researched, celebrated account of the Rendell administration’s battle with unions, crime and white flight is compelling, insightful and enlightening. At times it serves as textbook, others as novel. Read this no matter where you live.
1. Third and Indiana by Steve Lopez: If you call the Free Library for advice on finding the best books about Philadelphia, the man who answers the phone might start by asking if you mean other than “that Lopez” book because, well, everyone who would ask such a question has read Third and Indiana hasn’t he? The longtime Inquirer columnist never shook his columnist creedo – now with the L.A. Times and behind the forthcoming film The Soloist – as his classic falls short in completion to Philly’s other legendary columnist-turned-author Dexter, who was always more author than columnist. Still, Third and Indiana captures a segment of central North Philadelphia, “the Badlands” in eastern Fairhill, with gripping heart and unity. He rips smartly and consistently from actual events, much of it chronicled in his own Inquirer columns, and creates the best book set, about, or even mentioning Philadelphia. It’s worth mentioning that it took an outsider. Read this no matter where you live.
Other shout outs
Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide: A Reporter’s Notes on the Best Beer-Drinking City in America by Don Russell: Perhaps the most read Daily News columnnist reminds us why Philadelphia is the microbrewery capital of the Free World with his own degree aplomb.
The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide by Craig LaBan: The venerable food critic from the third oldest daily newspaper in the country got this right. This book is among the city’s most purchased books on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. He also put out a 2002 book called Savoring Philadelphia.
Nine thousand miles on a Pullman train;: An account of a tour of railroad conductors from Philadelphia to the Pacific coast and return by Milton T. Shaw (2007). Trains are cool, man, and Philadelphia was once the most important hub of them all. Read it on Google Books.
The Mustard Jar by Tom Schied: It is a brief, imperfect story of a teenager in Wissinoming in 1985. Having already mentioned the dearth of understanding of Northeast Philadelphia by outsiders, I felt compelled to include this, though it is more personal and serves less as a time capsule than Green Grass Grace. The Mustard Jar‘s print has plenty of errors and begins roughly, but the story is simple and serves its purpose of describing a time and a place for white teens in this Northeast neighborhood in the 1980s. Read a review by UwishUNu.
Here is one passage that stuck with me, the narrator speaking of his father:
When I got old enough, we would take walks together. Sometimes they would be in the park, sometimes just around the neighborhood. We never seemed to have a destination in mind. He would tell me stories of life in Philly in the ’30s and ’40sm and I would glide along in rapt attention. He never told stories about himself, always about other people. Seeds of wisdom. He had met a lot of characters in his life. Sometimes he would bring along snacks, and occasionally he would stuff the mustard jar into a sack, just in case I was in the mood to catch bugs. As the years went by and time became a commodity, the walks became less frequent, and the jar eventually found a spot at the bottom of the closet, collecting dust. I still would take long walks, but usually by myself. Without the stories to occupy my mind, it felt hollow, incomplete. I guess I still did it now just out of habit. [Page 78]
What I have to mention
Philly Dogs Have More Fun: The Best Places to Go and Things to Do With Your Dog in the Greater Philadelphia Area by Carol S. Armen (2001): This is just ridiculous. I love the cover, yes I am judging a book by its cover.
South Philadelphia by Murray Dubin (1996): Another Temple University Press book, it fills a void but is hardly a classic. There is rich culture, a vibrant creation myth and millions of subscribers to the South Philly way of life. It stuns me there hasn’t been a great book – especially surprised no great movie – has been made collecting that culture. Without one, Dubin’s decent 1996 work fits.
An Architectural Guidebook to Philadelphia by Frances Morrone (1998): This city is known for its architecture, a great collection of historic buildings mixed with a new modern push. You have to recognize that presence and this, I am told, is the best book on the subject out there.