The perfect Pittsburgh bookshelf would be made of steel, of course. Preferably forged in the fires of Carrie Furnace from the melted facemasks of vanquished Ravens, and bookended by a bottle of Monongahela Pure Rye Whiskey at one end, and a gleaming Lombardi Trophy on the other.
For a great Pittsburgh bookshelf, though . . . all you need are books.
Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent Pittsburgh books out there—histories, biographies, novels, photography, even poetry (really!). For our purposes here, we kept it limited to books either about Pittsburgh as a subject, or stories with Pittsburgh as a setting. Our list is fairly heavy on fiction and history, which are plentiful. If you’ve got some additions, we’d love to hear them.
So, if you have a year or two of free time coming up, or maybe you just really want to learn why this strange, remarkable little city is the way it is, here are a few good places to start:
Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, by William Serrin (1992). For those of us who grew up in its aftermath, the era of Big Steel seems to stand somewhere between myth and cliché. This really happened, though—hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their descendants flocked to Pittsburgh to sweat and bleed in the mills and mines. Somehow, after decades of failure, they found their own power in solidarity—wielding it first against the strikebreakers and militias of Carnegie and Frick, then against the Kaiser, Hitler and the empire of Japan. They built the Arsenal of Democracy and the American middle class. Then, after a few short decades of peace and broadly-shared prosperity, they finally met their match. Homestead is one of the best short histories of this era, and the traumatic years after steel’s collapse. There would be no bailouts for Pittsburgh, no soft landing, and precious little sympathy.
The Ones Who Hit The Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ’70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul, by Shawn Coyne and Chad Millman (2010). Giant sweaty dudes notwithstanding, football is largely about the management of symbols: numbers on a grid, X’s and O’s, blue-collar team-first Steelers versus flashy, show-off Cowboys, and so on. As slow motion economic apocalypse paralyzes Pittsburgh, its hard-luck team pulls together and wrenches us all into the unknown lands beyond. From the immigrant steelworkers who beat every opponent but globalism (though they certainly took it to overtime) to the oil-fueled ascent of Dallas, this book finds the flesh-and-blood stories behind the symbols. Curiously, Coyne and Millman often find the two cities and teams’ histories intertwined: Dallas’ gusher of oil wealth was seeded by Mellon money, its team’s success built on the fleet feet of Pitt product Tony Dorsett.
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1987). There have been a number of great women writers who have lived in Pittsburgh (Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein), but fewer have chosen Pittsburgh as a subject or setting. One major exception is Annie Dillard (Pulitzer Prize winner for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974), who has been away for decades, but her memories of growing in Pittsburgh in the 1950s color her book, An American Childhood—which is as much about her inner journey from childhood self-absorption to intellectual engagement with the world, as it is about a specific time and place.
Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Changed America, by Les Standiford (2005). It’s tempting to oversell Pittsburgh’s historical importance, but it really was a crucial fulcrum for American entrepreneurial ingenuity, and a major battleground for the labor movement. The partnership between the world’s richest man, Carnegie, and the ruthless coke king, Frick, was in some ways a success. In others, it was a catastrophe. Carnegie at least felt guilty about fighting an actual shooting war with his own workers (the Homestead Strike), but Frick, on the other hand, had no such qualms. Why isn’t this a movie?
Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Thomas Sweterlitsch (2015). This first-time author begins with a literal bang as Pittsburgh is erased in an unexplained atomic explosion. Lifting expertly from genre fiction (Philip K. Dick-inflected sci-fi paranoia, hard-boiled detective novels), its hero scans the infinite Archive, a digital simulation of the city taken from the video cameras embedded in everything—from traffic lights and storefronts to people’s own heads—for signs of his wife and unborn child. Then, he finds the body of a girl in Nine Mile Run, killed before the blast. The line between one profanely over-mediated future, and the end of everything, is drawn somewhere around Pittsburgh. Breathtaking images abound; one character is riding a bus through the Armstrong Tunnels when the bomb goes off. Shielded from the blast, she has to crawl through broken bodies, cars and the partially collapsed tunnel in total darkness, only to emerge in a city aflame. The sheer plausibility of its technology is also frightening—“Adware” is basically Internet access implanted in one’s brain, activated by thoughts. You can translate languages and pull off complicated searches without moving a muscle—but advertisers also have access to your mind.
The Homewood Trilogy, by John Edgar Wideman (1981, ’84). Like August Wilson does for the Hill District, Wideman’s painfully brilliant fiction works Damballah, Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday dig deep into the life of Black, working-class Homewood. To start, the short stories of Damballah explore Wideman’s own family lore—which goes back to the founding of Homewood by a runaway slave—and ties it to those imprisoned by almost-as-hopeless current circumstances. Wideman’s books are never an easy read, but succeed as both historical excavation and modernist literature. Every other book ever blurbed on the cover as “heartbreaking” is lying to you, in comparison.
Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, by Franklin Toker (2009). A beautiful book about Pittsburgh’s buildings and the neighborhoods they inhabit, from iconic skyscrapers to churches, bridges and eccentric little houses clinging to hillsides. Pitt professor Toker takes readers on a walk through the history of Pittsburgh’s structures—from the Gothic grandeur of the Cathedral of Learning to lesser-known curiosities like the radically modernist rowhouses of Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington (designed by Bauhaus giants Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, to house Alcoa workers).
Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, by W. Eugene Smith (2003). Simply one of the most rigorous, richly nuanced photographic portraits of a city ever shot. Smith stormed out of Life magazine in 1955 to undertake this project for Stefan Lorant’s book commemorating the city’s bicentennial. It clearly began to consume him—he stayed for a year and took 16,000 photos, and maintained that it was his greatest work. A thousand years from now, Smith’s portrait of mid-century Pittsburgh—the hellish heat of its industry, the pains and joys of its people, the ghostly dead-end roadway of Dream Street itself—will likely endure.
Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress, by Martha Frick Symington Sanger (2007). When she inherited $38 million in 1919, Helen Clay Frick became the richest woman in America. If money could buy happiness, she was certainly in the market. Her mother suffered from terrible depression, her older sister and newborn brother died young, and her industrialist father was one of the most hated men in America (and barely survived assassination). She spent a lot of her fortune on philanthropic endeavors, many of which bear the Frick name in Pittsburgh today. This portrait of Pittsburgh high society in the Gilded Age by Frick’s own great-granddaughter is quite sympathetic to its subject, but still fascinating.
Bend of the World, by Jacob Bacharach (2014). It arrived out of nowhere like the Kecksburg UFO, leaving more mystery in its wake. The novel Bend of the World is about a guy drifting uneasily into his thirties when he spots a UFO hovering over Pittsburgh. Soon, sinister forces are burbling up from beneath the three rivers and seeping in from the cracks between time and space, drugged hallucinations and quotidian reality. There’s an almost unfathomable weirdness lurking out there in the Western Pennsylvania night, if you know where to look.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon (1988). Sure, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon lives in Berkeley now, but if you went to school here, you’re a Pittsburgher for life. Pitt grad Chabon published one of the great coming-of-age novels of recent decades, depicting that cloudy, drifting time of pre-adulthood, set in 1980s Pittsburgh. It’s about alienation and belonging, sex and confusion, family and crime, and that weird “Cloud Factory” down in the ravine by CMU. Chabon’s Wonder Boys, set in Pittsburgh’s peculiar, insular academic subculture, is another good one (and made a better movie than Mysteries).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews (2012). For some reason, a lot of great coming-of-age novels are set in Pittsburgh, a few of which fit neatly into the recent boom in Young Adult fiction (two other strong entries: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth). Me and Earl never takes the obvious routes into mawkish romance or sentimentality, opting for surprise and sly humor instead. A middle-class Squirrel Hill kid named Greg takes a hard look at high school and figures he has no hope of fitting in. Instead, he forms an unlikely bond with a kid from a broken home in Homewood, Earl. Together they make movies—hilarious, micro-budget parodies of the art films in Greg’s dad’s collection. Then Greg’s mom makes him befriend a girl he barely knows, who’s dying of cancer. The boys resolve to make a movie for her, despite their total ineptitude at anything but slapstick comedy.
Leave Me by Gayle Forman (2016). A New York City magazine editor and mother is so busy and beaten down by life’s accumulated stresses that she barely notices when she has a heart attack. So, one day, she impulsively chucks it all and flees to Pittsburgh (of all places), trading the rat race in Manhattan for an apartment in Bloomfield. Forman, who lives in Brooklyn, has written seven popular novels for young adults—including If I Stay, which became a movie. This is her first aimed at adults.
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (1968). The dean of American historians made his name (long before John Adams, Truman and 1776) with the story of this catastrophic, largely man-made disaster. When the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River broke, it sent a wall of water rushing into the heart of Johnstown, killing more than 2,000 people. Survivors sued the dam’s owners—the wealthy speculators of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, including the reliably villainous Henry Clay Frick—and were thwarted at every turn.