• The cover of the book The Nickel Boys

    The Nickel Boys

    I’m not going to lie: I sobbed when reading parts of this novel, but it is also suffused with a hard-won joy, a return to the happiness with which it begins. For a century, the Dozier School in Florida served as a reform school and dumping ground for boys who had been exiled from society. Sent to be “educated,” many of them were tortured and beaten. Only in recent years has the number of dead been uncovered, as archaeologists continue to find ersatz graveyards where boys were secretly buried after being murdered. Whitehead faces this horror through the eyes of Elwood Curtis, who readers watch grow up, after he’s sent there for an innocent mistake. Curtis is devoted to the teachings of Dr. King, and as this gentle boy encounters the absolute worst of human depravity, readers will be forced to ask themselves why society throws boys like Elwood away. A stunning novel of power and grace, The Nickel Boys continues to prove that Whitehead can write about anything and make it resonant in readers’ lives.

    Sample passage:

    “After a week, things in the house were back to their routine, but Elwood was changed. Closer. At the demonstration, he had felt somehow closer to himself. For a moment. Out there in the sun. It was enough to feed his dreams. Once he got out to college and out of their little shotgun house on Brevard, he’d start his new life. Take girls to the movies—he was done stymieing himself on that front—and figure out a course of study. Find his place in the busy line of young dreamers who dedicated themselves to Negro uplift.”

  • The cover of the book The Underground Railroad

    The Underground Railroad

    The book that took Whitehead from critical darling to household name. It’s tough to describe just how good this book is, but it won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. In other words, nearly every major book prize that was awarded. But why should you read it? Imagine the Underground Railroad, the dangerous escape route traveled by enslaved persons prior to the Civil War, as a real operating railroad that runs beneath the land of the South. Cora and Caesar set out on its tracks on a type of modern-day Gulliver’s Travels that reveals the best—and the worst—of human nature. Whitehead makes real the horror of slavery and the euphoria of freedom. Truly a book for the ages.

    Sample passage:

    “Mabel had packed for her adventure. A machete. Flint and tinder. She stole a cabin mate’s shoes, which were in better shape. For weeks, her empty garden testified to the miracle. Before she lit out she dug up every yam from their plot, a cumbersome load and ill-advised for a journey that required a fleet foot. The lumps and burrows in the dirt were a reminder to all who walked by. Then one morning they were smoothed over. Cora got on her hands and knees and planted anew. It was her inheritance.”

  • The cover of the book The Noble Hustle

    The Noble Hustle

    A confession: I’ve never been good at card games, so much of the obsession with Poker has passed me by. But after reading this laugh-out-loud funny account of how Whitehead, a decent player whose super-power is his poker face, was staked to compete in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, I have re-thought my life. And unlike the bantam roosters whose idea of bluffing is to strut and puff their chests out, Whitehead relates to his readers as the middle-aged guy with the Dad bod, just trying to hang out and not make a fool of himself.

    Sample passage:

    “The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’ve had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest. I attacked my training on three fronts.”

  • The cover of the book Sag Harbor

    Sag Harbor

    A comic turn from Whitehead, who gives readers a coming-of-age tale set in the summer enclave of Sag Harbor (part of the Hamptons) where African American professionals created their own summer world. Benji Cooper heads there in the summer of 1985 to hang with friends. He thinks it’s time to ditch the name “Benji” to become “Ben,” but his buddies ignore him. His haircut is a disaster, and Benji Ben is hiding all sorts of embarrassing adolescent secrets that will seriously impinge on his game. A warm-hearted, funny tale about hot summer, cool music, and those intense teen desires that made us all wild.

    Sample passage:

    “I punched him in the face and he took it and retreated, walking backward, and I advanced on him for a while up the road. Then he reached some internal border and started advancing on me, hitting me in the face, and I retreated for a while up the road, walking backward until I was up against my own personal wall and advanced on him again. That’s why pro fights have a ring—otherwise people would just walk all over the goddamned place, up the aisle through the seats, out the lobby, and into the avenues. We prowled after each other up and down Walker, back and forth, the moronic pendulum, as my friends came out one by one, sniffing this on the wind from all points and following alongside like a news crew, providing blow-by-blow for the folks at home.”

  • The cover of the book The Colossus of New York

    The Colossus of New York

    Anyone who has spent any time in New York City knows that it’s not just one city: each neighborhood has its own distinctive character, and crossing certain streets puts travelers in different worlds, different centuries. In this jazz love song transformed into prose is Whitehead’s tribute to his birthplace. Whether you’re a resident of the Big Apple, an occasional visitor, or it’s a destination you dream about, reading Whitehead’s descriptions and stories is full immersion in the New York story.

    Sample passage:

    “The light changes and he has that wish again: that every step he ever took left a neon footprint. Every step, from his first to these. That way, he could catch up with himself, track himself through city and years. See that the last time he walked this block he was tipsy or in love. Here determined, there aimless like today, no particular place to go. If he could see his footprints, he’d know his uncharted territories, what was yet, and where never to return.”

  • The cover of the book Apex Hides the Hurt

    Apex Hides the Hurt

    A nomenclature expert is sent to an old small town going through an identity crisis and wanting a fresh start. They want a new name, but like slapping a bandage on an abscess and calling it healed, the desire for a new name won’t work. Instead, it takes the expert on a hero’s comic journey where his funny observations reflect back to him a history of hurt. He will be changed by it all. Whitehead’s observations about marketing and how we sell ourselves reality seems even more apt than when he wrote it in 2007.

    Sample passage:

    “He was watching an old black-and-white movie on the television, the kind of flick where nothing happened until it happened to strings. Every facial twitch had its own score. Every smile ate up two and a half pages of sheet music. Every little thing walked around with this heavy freight of meaning. In his job which was his past present and future job even though he had suffered a misfortune, he generally tried to make things more compact. Squeeze down the salient qualities into a convenient package. A smile was shorthand for a bunch of emotion. And here in this old movie they didn’t trust that you would know the meaning of a smile so they had to get an orchestra.”

  • The cover of the book Zone One

    Zone One

    Whitehead does post-apocalyptic horror. A new plague has wiped out most of the people in the world, and New York City is a shadow of its former self. Those who survived have to rid the city of the living dead, zombies, who are incompatible with human life. Mark Spitz and the small, armed civilian-sweeper unit he is a part of are given the task of clearing zombies from lower Manhattan. With each encounter, Spitz recounts the story of how this apocalypse occurred, and how the survivors must cope with a world in which most people are dead, and the survivors feel dead inside.

    Sample passage:

    “He went looking for the creature’s ID. The general theory contended that stragglers haunted what they knew. The where was obvious: You were standing in it. But the why was always somewhere else. This skel they’d discovered by the row of helium tanks, her hand dangling on a valve. She was wearing a gorilla costume. The costume draped off her shoulders, deflated on her shrunken form. She wasn’t wearing the head, which was nowhere in sight.”

  • The cover of the book The Intuitionist

    The Intuitionist

    Whitehead’s first novel, published in 2000, which chronicles the battles in the Department of Elevator Instructors. Two different world views, one based on technology, the other on intuition, are characterized by the different methods used by elevator inspectors. But when a major accident occurs, Lila Mae, one of the few black women elevator inspectors, is made scapegoat. As Lila Mae continues to investigate, however, she finds evidence of long-ago issues that reveal types of destructive secrets that make this much more than a novel about elevators and the people who inspect them.

    Sample passage:

    “On the few occasions Lila Mae has been in O’Connor’s during the broadcast of a baseball game or a boxing match, every cheer sent her looking for makeshift weapons. It doesn’t help matters that the bartender rings a large brass bell when a patron doesn’t tip; she jumps every time. Jumps at the sound and at the starter’s pistol they fire to quell disagreements, heated exchanges over various merits and drawbacks of heat dispersal in United Elevator’s braking systems, say. They can turn rabid at any second; this is the true result of gathering integration: the replacement of sure violence with deferred sure violence. Her position is precarious in the office, she understands that, and in O’Connor’s as well; she’s a lost tourist among heavy vowels, the crude maps of ancestral homelands, and the family crests of near-exterminated clans. Her position is precarious everywhere she goes in this city, for that matter, but she’s trained dread to keep invisible in its ubiquity, like fire hydrants and gum trod into black sidewalk spackle.”

  • The cover of the book John Henry Days

    John Henry Days

    In one version of the folk song about John Henry, the steel-driving man who is both legend and real American hero, the story begins, “John Henry was a little baby, sitting on the his papa’s knee/He picked up a hammer and little piece of steel/Said “Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord/Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.” John Henry earned his money driving steel, that is, driving holes into rock walls in preparation for the railroad to come through. In Whitehead’s amazing novel, he tells multiple stories that take place across time. One involves a journalist-for-hire, who is attempting to set a record for junketeering. His story is contrasted with the ill-fated Henry, who died after proving that he could not be replaced by a machine. Whitehead’s novel about the community—and the people who flock there—that decides to honor John Henry with his own festival, is a tour de force of writing that made me both laugh and cry.

    Sample passage:

    “He’s on the top of the hill. He has to let out the tune he’s been humming under his mind for the last few days now. Try a line and let it hang in the air. The last word of the next line comes first, it shines, obvious, newly there, and the rest of the line creeps up on it. That’s half a verse right there. Like picking a pocket. Sometimes he thinks rhyming is cheating. First man to rhyme building a whole new world should take his place with the man who invented brick.”