It’s the eternal debate: Which Philly book—fiction set here, nonfiction about here, or the work of authors from here—makes for the best reading? In the spirit of shining a light on our favorite local bookstores, we turned to their owners and staff to answer the age-old question. Here, their recs.
Whether you’re braving the heat in Philly or escaping to a sweet (and socially-distanced) vacation, we wish you happy reading.
13 great Philadelphia books to read this summer
1. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Ellen Trachtenberg from Narberth Bookshop suggests another author and book featured in The Citizen’s virtual book club, this hauntingly beautiful work is set in Port Richmond during the opioid epidemic and centers around two sisters, one of whom is a police officer, the other an addict.
2. Circe by Madeline Miller
Trachtenberg also recommends this powerful take on ancient Greek mythology by Narberth author Madeline Miller. Described by Trachtenberg as “groundbreaking and wonderful,” Circe follows the journey of a young deity faced with moral dilemmas and conflicting identities.
3. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This innovative and wildy engaging novel by long-time Philly resident Carmen Machado observes the effects of psychological abuse as it tells the story of a passionate, yet harrowing, relationship. Trachtenberg labels this book an “absolute original in form,” and it appeared on many Best of 2019 lists—including Narberth Book Shop’s.
Narberth Book shop details: 221 Haverford Ave, 610-664-1112. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5. They offer in-store pick up (with a mask), curbside pick up, and free local home delivery for anyone within Lower Merion and Havertown. Books can also be shipped anywhere in the U.S. with a $4 shipping fee.
4. Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis
Molly Russakoff, co-owner of Molly’s Books and Records, recommends this thriller by Philadelphian David Goodis, which follows the life of a disgraced piano prodigy condemned to playing cheap gigs in Philly, and examines the meanings of loyalty in a moody, nerve-racking tone. Russakoff describes Goodis as a “hard-boiled crime writer,” whose experiences living in Philadelphia heavily influence his work.
Molly’s Books and Records details: 1010 S. 9th Street, 215-923-3367. Open daily, 10am-6pm. Masks required.
5. Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs by Keena Roberts
This one was picked by Angella Meanix, book-buyer and manager at Wellington Square Bookshop. Roberts’ Wild Life deftly contrasts the wilderness of Africa with the elitism of a Philly private school to create an insightful and witty novel grappling with adolescence and identity crisis. Meanix describes Roberts as “a smart woman, well-spoken and a great writer,” who “sends a message of individuality as she takes you on her journey—urging you to never apologize for who you are.”
Wellington Square Bookshop details: 549 Wellington Square, 610-458-1144. Order the book from Wellington’s here.
6. Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Alex and Christina Schneider, co-owners at A Novel Idea, tout this true story that exposes the corruption of our first president during his time in Philadelphia and the mistreatment of people of color while highlighting the incredible woman who risked everything to gain freedom. Never Caught is “particularly relevant, based on current events and the continued fight against racial injustice,” say the Schneiders. It sheds an important light on the not-so-pretty parts of our city’s history.
7. Philadelphia Spiritualism and the Curious Case of Katie King by Stephanie Hoover
In times of uncertainty, people grasp for answers. After the Civil War, people dove into spiritualism in an effort to find meaning and comfort by communicating with the dead. This book delves into Katie King, a spirit who captivated Philadelphia society in 1874. The Schneiders describe this text as “both a spooky and fascinating read.” Maybe something to save till October?
8. Dr. Mutter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
Dr. Mutter’s Marvels is “a biography about the flamboyant medical trailblazer that helped establish Philadelphia as a medical mecca and led to the museum we know and love to be creeped out by,” say the Schneiders.
A Novel Idea details: 1726 E. Passyunk Avenue, 267 764-1202. Titles can be ordered from A Novel Idea by emailing them at [email protected].
9. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Jeannine Cook, owner of Harriet’s Bookshop recommends the debut novel from Fishtown resident Kiley Reid, which tells the story of a young Black woman falsely accused of kidnapping the child for whom she babysits. (Author Reid recently joined Cook and The Citizen for our inaugural virtual book club event.) “Her book kept our bookstore open,” Cook says. “It is our highest-selling title and it reaches into the intersections of race and class in a way that’s accessible.”
Harriet’s Bookshop details: 258 E. Girard Avenue, 267-241-2617. Open 10am-6pm daily.
10. Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John Szwed
In times of stress and uncertainty, escape from reality with Szwed’s biography detailing the life of one of music’s greatest visionaries. Recommended by Noelle Egan, co-owner at Brickbat Books, this book takes a look at jazz legend Sun Ra’s childhood, his early days, his philosophies, and his work with the Sun Ra Arkestra. The Arkestra has deep roots in Philadelphia, and this text explores Sun Ra’s relationship to Marshall Allen (current leader of the Arkestra) and the emergence of Afrofuturism. Brickbat Books describes it as a “terrific biography” and “an excellent read.”
11. Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again by Inga Saffron
Acclaimed Philadelphia architecture critic Inga Saffron consolidates over two decades of her articles to form this invigorating and engaging text. Richard De Wyngaert, owner of Head House Books, describes the collection of essays, just published by Rutgers University Press, as “written beautifully with fierce insight, intelligence and a deep knowledge—and love—for Philadelphia,” and “a must-have for anyone seeking greater understanding of the historical significance, the promise, and perilous challenges with which Philadelphia has, and must, battle.”
12. The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia by Nathaniel Popkin
De Wyngaert also recommends this text by Nathaniel Popkin, a “Philadelphian, writer, journalist, historian and founding co-editor of Hidden City” who “eloquently revisits our city’s founding ideals. He deftly explores its economic climb and descent, while eloquently scanning its cartography—highlighting the inspiring, often hidden, essence and majesty of Philadelphia.”
13. The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss
Set in part in Revolutionary Philadelphia, De Wyngaert describes this novel as “A fascinating, fast-moving historical thriller examining stealth entrepreneurship and treachery during the American Revolution.”
Head House Books details: 619 S. 2nd Street, 215-923-9525