Colson Whitehead’s post-election reading list

post-election reading list

This week Colson Whitehead came to town to talk about The Underground Railroad for a local author forum series Will and I love. A few times a year, two writers share the stage—set up like a library, with a big wooden table, comfy chairs, and gigantic bookshelves—for an interview-style book discussion.

Whitehead discussed the inspiration and history for his latest work, of course. (We found out he first had the idea for The Underground Railroad sixteen years ago—but he didn’t think he had the skills to do it justice till now.)

It wasn’t a political discussion, but when Whitehead grazed the topic near the end of the hour, his interviewer pounced, and asked him for the books he’d recommend for our post-election reading lists. I thought you’d like to hear his answer.

His first response was immediate: “If you need comfort, go to the books you love.” Whatever they are.

After a moment’s thought, he recommended three specific titles, all thoughtfully written works with plenty of nuance, regardless of your political beliefs. Here they are.

Colson Whitehead's post-election reading list
H Is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk

What Whitehead had to say about this bestselling memoir: occasionally "you see someone find a perfect subject, who has obviously found the perfect voice for who they are." After her father dies, McDonald stumbles upon a unique way to assuage her grief: she purchases and attempts to train an English goshawk with the deceptively quaint name Mabel. McDonald had been a falconer since she was a child, but her hawk is wild, unpredictable, irascible—as is her grief. Part memoir, part nature story: her tale is moving, poignant, and surprising. More info →
Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel, the first from short story author Saunders, doesn't come out till February 14, and Whitehead says to read it as soon as possible. This is a story about Lincoln, America's 16th president—kind of. The "bardo" of the title is a Tibetan concept: it's a spiritual landscape—a kind of in-between place—where we are sent between physical lives. When Lincoln's son Willie was 11, he died of typhoid, plunging Lincoln into deep grief. Saunders uses this real event as a jumping-off point to explore the near-unbearable grief of an individual, linking it to the disarray of the country he leads, at the height of its Civil War, and imagines how Lincoln's despair changed the outcome of the war. The critics are loving this: I'm not sure if that makes me happy or nervous. A little of both, I think. More info →
The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Whitehead didn't pointedly recommend his own book, but he did say it was timely. (Will it ever not be?) In this imaginative piece of historical fiction, the Underground Railroad of history becomes a subway—an actual locomotive, powered by coal and running on actual track below the surface. Whitehead drew inspiration from Gulliver's Travels and real-life heroine Harriet Jacobs for his story of Cora, a Georgia slave who sets out on a heroic quest to find freedom in the North. More info →

Previously recommended for post-election reading: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. And to save $$$ on any books, including these recommended titles, Amazon has revived its $5 savings on a book purchase. Get the details here.

post-election reading list

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Leave A Comment
  1. Lisa G says:

    I can’t wait to read Lincoln in the Bardo….I’m from the Land of Lincoln (Central Illinois) and my fascination with Lincoln began early.

  2. What a great post. I’m reading The Underground Railroad now and loving it, and I would love to hear the author speak. I’ve been looking forward to reading George Saunders’ new novel – I absolutely love his short stories, Tenth of December is fabulous. I can vouch for H is for Hawk, the writing is exceptional.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this! I’m adding Lincoln in the Bardo to my TBR list for 2017. But, I loved what Whitehead said about going to the books you love for comfort. The day after the election, I immediately began re-reading the entire Mitford series by Jan Karon. Comfort food for my soul!

    • Becca says:

      I did too! There was something so lovely about the community coming together over and over again. Very soothing and thought-provoking.

  4. Leah Kabaker says:

    This may come as a surprise, but I’m not looking for comfort after the elections, I am looking forward to a wonderful new chapter in the life of our nation. I’m sure there are books that reflect that rather than are mired in how to overcome despondency. I read H is for Hawk, came away more depressed after reading it.

    • Leah Kabaker says:

      I don’t like novels or in this case a memoir that get political just because they can, it has nothing to do with the story. I’ve noticed that many British authors do that, so I don’t read too many. Also, the woman becomes a falconer and spends the whole book apologizing that the bird is doing what God created it to do – hunt, kill, eat. Maybe she is apologizing that she in involved with the activity, I stopped caring.

    • Anne says:

      Mr. Whitehead didn’t say how he felt about the election, although I feel pretty confident I can guess correctly. But titles that offer hope in divisive times, with plenty of nuance, can speak to the reader regardless of political affiliation.

  5. Julie says:

    I loved The Underground Railroad and I agree about reading books for comfort although I did read and appreciate Hillbilly Elegy. Right after the election I plowed through the last three Harry Potter books. They felt like the perfect thing to read in these times.

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