Every newcomer to Baltimore hears these five words before they arrive: “Have you watched ‘The Wire’?”
Even two decades later, the city’s reputation is inextricably linked to the HBO show. But one soon-to-be Baltimorean was looking for more and reached out to ask which books we would recommend to someone who’s about to move here — books that go beyond the version of Baltimore “The Wire” presents.
So we turned to the experts: Readers!
- An intern’s favorite bookstores of the summer
We posted the question and 63 responded, recommending 55 books and three sweeping suggestions: Anything by Anne Tyler, Anything by Laura Lippman and Anything by Lawrence T. Brown.
‘Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City’
By Antero Pietila
Charm City was unfortunately one of the first in the country to use private covenants to bar people from housing based on their ethnicity. Antero Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, takes a deep dive into this history of redlining and racial segregation.
No fewer than 16 readers recommended it. Here are a couple of reviews:
“Not in my Neighborhood by Antero Pietila does a really great job of giving you a sense of where you are and how where you are got to be how it is. Spoilers: it’s racism.” — Daniel Shiffner
“This book helped me understand how housing discrimination has shaped and continues to shape Baltimore. Pietila does a great job explaining how societal beliefs, like eugenics, influenced the laws around housing.” — Julie Spokus
‘The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America’
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The second-most-recommended book shows how the roots of redlining encase modern Baltimore, quietly reinforcing the racial and economic trenches separating our neighborhoods.
Reader reviews: “I moved to Baltimore two years ago, and reading about the history of red lining and discrimination against the Black community has been really helpful to understand dynamics at play in the city and in the country.” — Guillaume Foutry
“An analysis of the structural issues and policy-level decisions at the root of racialized inequality in the city, with some radical ideas on how to how to address it.” — Linda Shopes
‘Baltimore Blues’ ; ‘Charm City’ ; ‘What The Dead Know’
At least four different people submitted the exact same response: “Anything by Laura Lippman”, the prolific Baltimore author who is still publishing new works.
One reader recommends starting with her 1997 classic “Baltimore Blues.”
Reader review: “Laura Lippman’s book gives a great feel for the city as her characters go up and down the streets of downtown, Federal Hill and more as she weaves a fine crime novel.” — Jack Amdryszak
Any book by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler has been rooted in Baltimore while writing prolifically for over half a century, and her novels show it. She’s won numerous accolades, including the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and three readers recommend her works.
Reader Review: “The majority of her books are set in Baltimore and she beautifully captures the quirkiness of this city and its residents.” — Lucy Strausbaugh
‘The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America’ by Richard Rothstein
Reader review: “You will have countless recommendations for Lippman, Tyler, Waters, Poe (rightfully). Actually wanna know “why Bmore has this rep”? You must understand racial housing laws & how that meant American cities could develop. Don’t wanna know? Then don’t live here.” – Chrissy Kidd (This reader also recommended “Not in My Neighborhood” by Antero Pietila.)
‘We Speak for Ourselves’ and ‘The Cook Up’ by D. Watkins
D. Watkins is an East Baltimore-born author, editor, professor and writer for HBO’s “We Own This City” who depicts an honest image of what it’s like to live in East Baltimore.
‘The Tell Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
‘Homicide: A Year on the Killing streets’ by David Simon
As the creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” David Simon is a well-known name in Baltimore. His novel “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was adapted into an NBC show, “Homicide: Life on the Street” in the ‘90s.
Reader review: “I moved here in 1991. I hunted high and low for books about Baltimore. They were mostly tangential to understanding the city. A friend gave me David Simon’s ‘Homicide.’ It was eye opening and mesmerizing. A seminal work for understanding Baltimore in the 1990s. I still think about it today.” — Mary Roberts
‘If You Love Baltimore, It Will Love You Back: 171 Short, But True Stories’ by Ron Cassie
This collection of vignettes by nationally acclaimed Baltimore magazine editor Ron Cassie uses the everyday experiences of residents to paint an intricate mosaic of Charm City.
Reader review: “It’s 171 short but true stories that shows the quirkiness and flavor of Baltimore, and its inhabitants. It also showcases the neighborhoods we were famous for & the diversity of them. — Jacqueline Victoria Capel
‘Chesapeake’ by James Michener
This sprawling novel depicts coastal Maryland’s history by following several generations of three different families, all the way from the late 1500s to the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s.
Reader review: “James Michener’s ‘Chesapeake’ is still one of the most revealing and informative narratives for any one new to this region. As a very well regarded historical fiction novel, it provides a very colorful and for the most part, accurate accounting of the basis for the cultural of our community.” — Jim Burdick
‘111 Places in Baltimore That You Must Not Miss’ by Allison Robicelli
Want to visit a fudge shop with ties to four legendary R&B artists, drink in Edgar Allan Poe’s memory or visit one of the oldest blacksmith shops in the country that’s still operating? This book is full of quirky, fascinating and thoroughly explained recommendations for eating, drinking, visiting historic spots and much more.
Reader review: “I have visited almost every location listed in this book — I love it. I have found everything from my favorite chocolates to talented Greektown glassblowers. Even ‘Baltimore Licks!’ ” — Yvette Wheeler
‘Baltimore: A Political History’ by Matthew Crenson
Written by a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, this book explores how Baltimore became Baltimore. Starting with the city’s founding in 1729, Crenson navigates the politics of the region and how issues such as the Revolutionary War, slavery and industrialization molded Charm City.
Reader reviews: “This book explains how Baltimore was created; the factors that accounted for its growth; the development of its major industries, such as the railroads; its long history of governmental dysfunctionality and civil disorder (e.g., riots); and the factors that led to its decline after World War II.” — Jefferson M. Gray
“Provides a really interesting historical perspective on how Baltimore has been intentionally shut out of state power from its founding, among other things.” — Mobtowne
‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’ by Frederick Douglass
This memoir recounts Frederick Douglass’ life, including his experiences while enslaved in Baltimore and Maryland. After escaping slavery, he fled north and became one of the most influential abolitionist movement leaders of the 19th century.
Reader review: “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass should be a must read for Baltimoreans and Marylanders. An icon of American history, telling a vital story of our past, the story of slavery in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore. It should be part of the DNA of everyone in Baltimore.” — Amanda McGuire
‘Shelter: A Black Tale of Homeland, Baltimore’ by Lawrence Jackson
Lawrence Jackson, who grew up in West Baltimore, is now a professor at Johns Hopkins, an institution that has a complex and often tense relationship with many of the city’s neighborhoods. In this memoir, the author uses his own life as lens to understand the many nuances of the city.
Reader review: “Read this wonderful work with a map of Baltimore neighborhoods in hand or, better yet, on a walking tour of the city.” — Clarissa Howison
‘The Amiable Baltimoreans’ by Francis F. Beirne
Legend has it that the first umbrella in America was opened in Baltimore. This book explores the history of Baltimore with many such anecdotes and fun facts — though they might be somewhat dated for the modern reader.
Reader review: “ ‘The Amiable Baltimoreans’ was written in the early 1950s by Francis Beirne — a former editor at the Sunpapers. It is a bit of a throwback, but a solid read for those looking to learn about our city’s unique people, history, and culture.” — Tyler Crowe
‘What’s Not to Like?: Words and Pictures of a Charmed Life’ by Jim Burger
A former photographer at The Baltimore Sun recounts his life through words and images. “I was walking around the building one day and I was just taking pictures just to show what it looked like and how a newspaper was made. And now it’s a historical document. Nothing, literally nothing in those photos exists!” the author told WYPR.
Reader review: “He’s lived in Baltimore a long time, worked for The Baltimore Sun, and has some great stories to tell. — Kristen Held
‘We Are Satellites’ by Sarah Pinsker
A story about how technology can divide families, written by an award-winning science fiction author based in Baltimore.
Reader review: “I recommend We are Satellites by local Sarah Pinsker. The book is set in the near future, but interwoven in the story are the locations like the aquarium.” — Emanuel
‘Crowning the Gravelly Hill: A History of the Roland Park-Guilford-Homeland District’ by James Waesche
A look into the neighborhoods infamously built on private racial covenants.
Reader review: “It’s a fascinating look at the Roland Park Company’s development of Roland Park, Guilford, Homeland, and Northwood, still popular neighborhoods, more than 100 years on.” — Kathleen Truelove
‘Beautiful Swimmers’ by William W. Warner
You can’t talk about Baltimore without blue crabs being part of the conversation. Their genus, Callinectes, is Greek for “beautiful swimmer,” hence the name of this 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book.
Reader review: “A book about crabs from start to finish. Great read.” — Dave Majchrzak