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6 books John McWhorter loves

The linguist recommends works by Philip Roth, Wendy Lesser, and more

Linguist John McWhorter is a Columbia University professor, contributor to The Atlantic, host of a Slate podcast, and author of 20 books. In his latest, Nine Nasty Words, he examines the origins and evolution of several notorious profanities.

Sea People by Christina Thompson (2019).

You may not think that you would enjoy a book about the peopling of the Polynesian islands, but this one you will. The vast Pacific Ocean was the last region peopled, and with celestial-navigation techniques that seem almost magical to the outsider. Linguistics, archaeology, folklore, and geography all come together in a fascinating story. Buy it here.

The Queen by Josh Levin (2019).

The Reaganite "welfare queen" archetype was, of course, a myth, and based on essentially one person. Linda Taylor indeed drew welfare checks via several false identities, but her real story was one of American segregation, bigotry, and eventually psychological imbalance and murder. The Queen is a sterling lesson in the relentless complexity of social history. Buy it here.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997).

It seemed as if everybody had read this but me. When I finally did, I was floored by the grinding tug between the ideals of a callow assimilationist everyman and the tragedy that fate can unleash upon a marriage, a family, and even a nation's cultural fabric. This is the Roth novel most likely to be read 200 years from now. Buy it here.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018).

Lukianoff and Haidt keenly anticipated today's debates over "wokeness," noting that contemporary educational orthodoxy teaches kids three basic tenets: What doesn't kill you makes you weaker, always trust your feelings, and life is a battle between good people and bad people. Progressive? Opinions will differ. Buy it here.

You Say to Brick by Wendy Lesser (2017).

This exquisite summation of Louis Kahn's life and work is also a stealth class in the aesthetics of modern architecture. It's singular in a way surpassing recent bios of more famous architects Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright. Buy it here.

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron (2016).

This novel doesn't know whether it wants to be a mystery, a historical reflection, or a family saga — and shouldn't. Written by an accomplished playwright, it is a magnificently odd and passionate saga of two Black brothers during the second half of the 20th century. The thematic range and almost Faulknerian sprawl here deserve more attention. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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