Books can be powerful influences in our lives. Just ask Dwayne Betts or any of the book lovers who recently joined our Next Wave conversation about the Million Book Project, an initiative that will bring curated 500-book Freedom Libraries to prisons in every state in the U.S., Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The prompt we used to kick-off our discussion: We have the opportunity to put one million books in the hands of 2.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. If you could choose one book to make available in every prison in the U.S., what would it be? What’s the book that shaped your life–one that you’ve loved, that has troubled or inspired you, made you weep? What about the book you’d give to a person to get to know you better?

The list of books (read it below) doesn’t disappoint. There are some amazing works, past and present. While some were elicited by the prompt, others found their way in through the conversation. Dwayne raised Men Explain Things to Me as part of a discussion about whether there are books for men or books for women or, as Dwayne emphasized, simply books for people.

Where to start reading? We asked our team at ITHAKA what they think. Consensus was that Invisible Man and The Fire Next Time are absolute musts! They also made some suggestions of their own which we’ve added to the list, including How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Tracks, No Logo, and more.

Dwayne is also leading efforts to reissue a set of classic books with introductory letters authored by contemporary writers, a modern-day response to books reaching across the intervening century. Marlon James introduces Pride and Prejudice; George Saunders is doing Dubliners; Jamaica Kincaid writes on Jane Eyre, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires reflects on The Scarlet Letter. The collection, sixteen works in total, called the Freedom Suite, is being released by a new publishing house founded by Dwayne and called Fentress, Tunstall & Williams (a.k.a. Fats, Juvie & Luke).

Whatever you choose to pick up, we hope it’s worthwhile. As Dwayne said during the event: “books, bookshelves, places where books gather, are where we find love, and nourishment, and each other.”

We hope you’ll find a connection in this list and invite you to share your own recommendations with us. Dwayne and the team at the Million Book Project are also eager to hear from people who want to share ideas or support the project in some way, so feel free to reach out.

And if you’re looking for a place to buy one of these books, Corinne Segal compiled a great list of Black-owned independent bookstores on LitHub. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t suggest you borrow them at your local library.

P.S. If you are looking for shorter reads recommended regularly, check out Dwayne’s poetry selections in The New York Times Magazine. What better way to observe National Poetry Month!


  1. Angels in America, Tony Kushner*
  2. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley*
  3. The Changeling, Victor LaValle*
  4. The Color Purple, Alice Walker*
  5. The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin*
  6. The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Marukami*
  7. Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown
  8. The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater
  9. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin*
  10. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley*
  11. Getting Home Alive, Aurora Levins Morales
  12. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck*
  13. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens*
  14. Home, Toni Morrison*
  15. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs
  16. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison*
  17. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontȅ*
  18. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
  19. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  20. A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
  21. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf*
  22. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
  23. The New Negro, Alain Locke (ed)*
  24. No Logo, Naomi Klein
  25. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
  26. A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
  27. Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison*
  28. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen*
  29. The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck
  30. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois*
  31. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  32. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  33. Tracks, Louise Erdrich*
  34. Transformative Experiences, L.A. Paul

* These books or another by the same author have already been selected for the Freedom Library.