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The List: Our Readers Recommend a Select Sampling of Books About NJ

From classics by John McPhee and Philip Roth to “Weird New Jersey” and “Boardwalk Empire,” an eclectic reading list for the Garden State.

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In July, we asked our readers to share with us their favorite New Jersey books. They could be fiction or nonfiction, frothy fun or serious policy tomes. The only condition was that the Garden State play a prominent role.

We got a list that spanned that range and then some. We’ve culled the most popular, based on reader input, critical reviews, and other completely subjective criteria. If you don’t agree with us, or your favorite didn’t make it, be sure to tell us in the Comments section.

This list is just a start to our celebration of New Jersey lit. In the last two weeks of August, we’ll be printing excerpts from 10 recently published books that feature the Garden State, including a few mentioned on this list.

1. The Pine Barrens -- John McPhee

First published in 1968, this nonfiction book was by far the most popular in our reader survey. Just last year, The New York Times called McPhee’s classic “a New Jersey must-read,” while one of our readers called the book -- a study of the Pine Barrens region of the state and efforts to save it from development -- “well-written and humorous.”

2. Stephanie Plum mystery series -- Janet Evanovich

This series began with the 1994 publication of "One For the Money" and has been counting up ever since. According to Evanovich’s website, "Takedown Twenty" is due out this November. Said one of our readers, “This series makes me laugh out loud even when I'm by myself. Great fiction series about the blunders of a female bounty hunter with the worst luck. Given that it's Jersey-based, it makes me feel connected to the characters and story.”

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao -- Junot Diaz

Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and this one of two books on the list to earn that distinction. One of our readers summed up the critical favorite this way: “My favorite novels are often semi-autobiographical and shed light on the immigrant experience in America. Diaz flawlessly transports the reader between the horrors of Trujillo's tyranny in the Dominican Republic to the gritty reality of more modern day Elizabeth, New Jersey. Despite the hardships Oscar and his family endure, the book is filled with moments of beauty.”

4. American Pastoral -- Philip Roth

Both this book, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Roth’s "The Plot Against America" were named as reader favorites. Roth is a Newark native, and "American Pastoral" recreates the Weequahic neighborhood in the 1920s as it follows the life of a promising high-school athlete and his family through the social and political unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.

5. Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State -- Thomas Belton

Since the environment is one of NJ Spotlight’s major coverage areas, it’s not surprising that several books dealing with that subject made the list. Of this 2011 nonfiction book, one reader writes: “It was one of the few books I’ve read that gave care and attention to the entire state. Besides helping to explain the history of pollution problems, it told of surprising animals now calling New Jersey home. The title itself doesn’t seem to tell you how warm and interesting the book is, but it is a story about New Jersey told with love.”

6. Palisades Park -- Alan Brennert

With its April publication date, this title is one of the newer books on the list. “Excellent story about one of New Jersey’s greatest historical landmarks,” said one reader. The book “mentions many other great New Jersey entertainment locations, such as Monmouth Park Racetrack.”

7. Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation -- Dan Fagin

Another recently published work of nonfiction; NJ Spotlight healthcare writer Andrew Kitchenman did a longer piece on this book in June. One reader said, “Fascinating story about Toms River's history, Ciba Geigy, pollution, and cancer, but it reads like a novel.”

8. Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia -- Michael Aaron Rockland

Published in 1994, “the book explores unexpected adventures in urban New Jersey,” said one of our readers. “Bicycling Route 22, canoeing in Trenton; it inspires one to take his own urban adventures.”

9. Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City -- Nelson Johnson

You may have seen the HBO series, but did you know it was based on a nonfiction book? “It reads more as a novel and less as a biographical work because of the amount of characters he researched and the pace at which it moves,” said one of our readers. “For fans of the HBO show, Atlantic City, or anyone just wanting to look into the history of the Shore town they’re visiting this summer, this book is a must read.”

10. Local history

In a state where home rule reigns supreme, it’s not a surprise that our readers submitted a number of historical accounts as their favorite books about New Jersey, including:

Heroines of Haddonfield -- Christie Castorino

Written by a 14-year-old, this book features mini-biographies of important women from the Camden County borough of Haddonfield.

Fred and Ethel Noyes of Smithville, New Jersey: The Artist and the Entrepreneur -- Judy Courter

This title tells the story of the founders of the Smithville Inn & Village, the Ram's Head Inn, and the Noyes Museum

The Peace Pilgrim: Walking Her Talk Against Hate -- Merry Brennan

Written for young adults, this book tells the story of the Peace Pilgrim, the New Jersey native who walked across the United States seven times to spread her message of peace.

Weird NJ Volumes I and II -- Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran

These unusual travel guides are a fan favorite and reveal New Jersey's legends, ghost stories, best-kept-secrets and, well, anything else that fits the "weird" description.

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