Boston is famed for its beans and its BoSox, to be sure, but it's also a literary city known for its books.
First-time visitors can get a taste of Bostonians' eccentric social customs and distinctive speech patterns by reading two delightful 20th-century novels. John P. Marquand's ''The Late George Apley" (Back Bay, paperback, $14.95) tells the story of the stereotypical proper Bostonian who is trying to cope with the sweeping changes confronting his Protestant ancestry, his Yankee economy, and his Brahmin society. Edwin O'Connor's ''The Last Hurrah" (Back Bay, paperback, $14.95), on the other hand, re-creates the political world of the Boston Irish as they rise from virtual obscurity to seek social status and political dominance in a Puritan city that long denied them both.
Visitors can learn how Boston got started by reading a splendid work by Samuel Eliot Morison called ''Builders of the Bay Colony" (Houghton Mifflin, paperback). A master stylist and outstanding historian, Morison has painted a series of shrewd and perceptive biographical sketches of founder John Winthrop and other Puritan men and women who shaped the political, religious, and intellectual life of the Bay Colony.
Jill Lepore's ''The Name of War: King Phillip's War and the Origins of American Identity" (Vintage, paperback, $15) is an ingenious account of the bloody conflict between the Boston settlers and the Algonquian Indians that forever shaped relations between the colonists and the Native Americans in this region. ''Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England" (University of Massachusetts, paperback, $19.95), by William D. Piersen, provides an important account of the largely overlooked work and contributions of African-Americans in Colonial New England, while Mary Beth Norton's ''Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800" (Cornell University, paperback, $19.95) describes the changing social and economic status of women of that time.
Conflict with Great Britain brought the American colonies into a series of confrontations, like the Boston Massacre, that made the town a major player in the events that followed. Hiller B. Zobel's ''The Boston Massacre" (Norton, used paperback, about $5) is an engrossing analysis of the trial of the British soldiers charged with the murder of five civilians, written by a noted Boston jurist and historian. Perhaps nothing brings out the poignancy of a people in rebellion better than Bernard Bailyn's study ''The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson" (Belknap, paperback, $21.95), in which the lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony finds himself torn between his sincere love for his American homeland and his sworn duty to his sovereign king.
And as for what happened when the lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church finally signaled that the British were on their way, David Hackett Fischer's ''Paul Revere's Ride" (Oxford University, paperback, $19.95) goes far beyond the figure in Longfellow's famous poem to give us new insights into Revere himself, as well as other patriots with whom he worked to achieve an independent America.
Independence brought to Boston not only political freedom but also new financial opportunities. Morison's ''The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860" (Northeastern, paperback, $24) is still the outstanding work on the subject. Despite its own age, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s classic study ''The Age of Jackson" (Back Bay, paperback, $24.99) remains a valuable work for its insights into the introduction of Democratic politics into the Bay State, and the influence that Jacksonian democracy had on the city's traditional institutions. Van Wyck Brooks's ''The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865" (Modern Library, 1941) still stands as a beautifully written and all-encompassing study of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the other Transcendental figures who sparked the great intellectual renaissance of the antebellum years. Alex Beam's ''Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital" (PublicAffairs, paperback, $15) provides a thoughtful and at times witty account of the early treatment of the mentally ill and the emergence of the McLean Hospital as a haven of hope.
The optimism of the Transcendental years was marred by the presence of slavery in the South and racism throughout the North. A new edition of James Oliver and Lois E. Horton's classic work, ''Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North" (Holmes and Meier, paperback, $17.95) provides essential reading for a better understanding of early race relations in Boston. ''The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison" (Little, Brown, 1963), by John L. Thomas, has supplied perhaps the best biographical treatment of one of the most complex and compelling reformers in the crusade against slavery.
Jack Beatty's ''The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, (1874-1958)" (Da Capo, paperback, $18.50) has furnished readers with a full-length biography of the big-city boss whose personal charisma, spellbinding oratory, and uproarious antics influenced the Boston political scene for nearly half a century. In a look at Boston as it became embroiled in racial tensions, school desegregation controversies, and court-ordered busing, Anthony J. Lukas's ''Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families" (Vintage, paperback, $18) still stands as a brilliantly conceived and skillfully executed study of the racial crisis through the eyes of an Irish-American, an African-American, and a Yankee-American family, all caught up in a firestorm of fear and hatred that could only burn itself out with the passage of time and the acceptance of change.