When planning your trip to the South, it’s important to research where you’re going. So we’ve compiled a list of the best books about Tennessee and by Tennessee authors to help you prepare. No matter whether you’re a resident looking to learn more about your home state or a first timer curious about the history, these books are sure to help you enjoy it more. Note that this post does contain affiliate links, but will not add any additional fees to your purchases.
Books by Tennessee Authors
Long Man by Amy Greene
In a story inspired by true events from Tennessee history, a woman and her young daughter are the last people in their small town when land is bought up for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Long Man River is set to flood Yuneetah but before it can happen, her daughter disappears. Long Man tells of her struggle to solve the mystery of what happened to her, whether she was kidnapped or wandered off on her own. It fictionalizes what really happened for many Tennesseans that were displaced through the opening of dams.
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Named one of Time’s 100 Best Novels, A Death in the Family is one of Agee’s classic works after being published in 1957 after his death. A man returns home to Knoxville but is suddenly killed in a car accident. His family must cope with loss and grief. The story shows how each member of the family deals with it, including his young widow, two children, his alcoholic brother, and father-in-law. In 2007, an updated version of the book was published using the author’s manuscript and notes.
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Summons to Memphis, a New York book editor returns home to Memphis after his scheming sisters call to tell him their father is engaged to a much younger woman. He is hesitant to get entangled into family drama but ultimately goes. But he soon finds out the real reason he was asked to return and reflects back on his past when his family was forced to leave Nashville after his father loses a great deal of money.
The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
Based on a true story, The Widow of the South tells of Carrie McGavock, the caretaker of the over 1,500 soldier graves at her home of Carnton Plantation in Franklin. She meets an elderly man that brings back memories of their first meeting years prior. The book flashes back in points of time between the present and when her home was used as a Civil War hospital. It was there that she fell in love with a wounded soldier.
Twilight by William Gay
Not to be confused with the series of the same name, Twilight is a Southern gothic novel set in rural Tennessee. Teenage siblings sense something isn’t right after their bootlegger father’s burial, so they visit his grave where they find their father isn’t in the casket. They learn a terrible secret about the town’s undertaker, who has been manipulating the dead. They have evidence of his crimes but soon come under threat of a hitman and convicted murderer hired by the undertaker. The pair go on the run through the backwoods to find safety.
Fiction Set in Tennessee
The Firm by John Grisham
While Grisham doesn’t hail from Tennessee, many of his works are set in Memphis and Mississippi. The Firm is one such, which was made into a popular movie. A new lawyer signs on with a big shot firm in Memphis and thinks his life is turning around after they buy him a car, pay his student loans, and helped him get a mortgage for his house. But nothing is free. The FBI comes knocking, asking for information on his firm. Will he stick with the company that is giving him a taste of the good life or side with the government and become a “snitch?”
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
A New York Times Bestseller by a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, Flight Behavior is a novel set in rural Tennessee. A woman became pregnant at a young age and was forced to stay on the failing farm in the small town she grew up in. She discovers what appears to be a lake of fire that she can’t explain and now everyone, from scientist to politicians to religious leaders, has their own take on its cause. She soon finds herself at the center of a debate on climate change.
Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial by Ronald Kidd
Set in the summer of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, Monkey Town is a fictionalized account around the real-life “Monkey Scopes” trial about teaching evolution in schools. Frances is a teenager dealing with first love, a crush on her teacher John T. Scopes, and growing pains. Her father has Scopes arrested for teaching evolution and her small town becomes ground zero for the trial of the century where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debate whether or not humans descended from monkeys.
Carved in Bone by Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass
Written under the pen name Jefferson Bass, these two experts write crime novels about the Body Farm, a real-life research facility near Knoxville where bodies are left to naturally decompose for study. Carved in Bone is the first in a series of novels based around the site. A renowned anthropologist is called to solve the mystery surrounding a mummified corpse hidden in a cave for thirty years in a remote mountain town. But the residents of the town aren’t happy with him for opening up old wounds.
Non-fiction About Tennessee
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
In the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, the author tells the true story of the women who worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in World War II. The top-secret government site was created seemingly overnight when plots were bought up and thousands were hired for a variety of roles, but they didn’t know they were helping to build the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Young women from small towns were tasked with keeping round the clock watch of the caultron machines, which separated uranium isotopes. In this remote community, these women found their friendships and relationships.
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon
The story of Stax Records is told in Respect Yourself, which tells of the white brother and sister team who open a racially integrated recording studio in a rough neighborhood in south Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement. They develop a lineup of big-name stars like Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. But one sibling leaves in search of independence but it’s not long before the entire operation falls apart. But there were triumphs along the way, including careers of acts like Booker T and the MG’s, their house band, and the successful Wattstax music festival.
Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers by Preston Lauterbach
Few Americans know the name Ernest Withers, but they likely know his work. Bluff City tells the story of the photographer who captured some of the most significant images from the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. riding an integrated bus in Montgomery, Emmett Till’s uncle speaking at his trial, and the sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis. During this time, he was also working as an informant for the FBI. This book puts together the complicated life that captured and betrayed those in his photos.
We Shall Overcome: Press Photographs of Nashville during the Civil Rights Era by Kathryn E. Delmez
Put together by the Frist Art Museum and named one of the Best Art Books of 2018 by the New York Times, We Shall Overcome showcases the photos of the Civil Rights Movement. It puts special focus on the events that took place in Nashville between 1957 and 1968, including the desegregation of public schools, the student-led lunch counter sit-ins, and the threat of riots after King’s assassination. Representative John Lewis, who participated in the sit-ins with students from local historically black colleges and universities, contributed the foreword.
Elvis and Me: The True Story of the Love Between Priscilla Presley and the King of Rock N’ Roll by Priscilla Presley
No one knew the man called “The King of Rock and Roll” better than his wife Priscilla. In her New York Times bestseller Elvis and Me, she shares her experiences meeting in Germany and developing a relationship with the music legend. It reveals details of their marriage, affairs, divorce, and remaining bond afterward. The book contains never before seen photos of their life together and is a must-read for fans, especially those visiting Graceland, the home they shared together for many years.
Guidebooks on Tennessee
Tennessee Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff by Kristin Luna
This is not your average Tennessee guidebook! Tennessee Curiosities showcases the unique people, offbeat places, and quirky things that both visitors and locals will appreciate. It also includes local humor and trivia to keep you entertained on your journey. The author, Kristin, is a native of Tennessee and writes about the Nashville area extensively, so she knows her stuff.
Ultimate Smoky Mountains: Discovering the Great National Park by Andrew Kyle Saucier
Contributor Andrew Kyle Saucier penned Ultimate Smoky Mountains, a hardback guide with incredible color photos about the most visited national park, which averages 10 million visitors annually. This book covers outdoor activities like hiking, camping, wildlife watching, fishing, and climbing in the Smokies. It also recommends scenic driving routes, places to snap the perfect photo, and historic sites within the park that can’t be missed.
Nashville: Scenes from the New American South by Ann Patchett
Novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett pens a love letter to her home in Nashville. It is part guidebook and part coffee table book with the history of the country music city, its historic landmarks, funky festivals, creative communities, and award-winning restaurants. She celebrates local favorites like the honky-tonks of Broadway, the iconic Grand Ole Opry, the Buchanan Arts District, world-famous Prince’s Hot Chicken, and Third Man Records, owned by Jack White of The White Stripes.
Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Jason Frye
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the national park that stretches between Tennessee and North Carolina, pick up a copy of Moon Great Smoky Mountains. It showcases the park’s lush forests and untouched wilderness with helpful themed itineraries, tips and tricks for navigating the park even at peak season, and in-depth coverage of the towns that border the park. Full-color photos and detailed maps help with your trip-planning and Jason’s expert tips encourage travelers interested in hiking, fly-fishing, and other activities.
Nashville Beer: A Heady History of Music City Brewing by Chris Chamberlain
While not a traditional guidebook, Nashville is a surprising destination for craft beer lovers. Chris dives into the early days of brewing in Nashville Beer, starting with the arrival of German immigrants in the 1800s. Gerst Brewing Company, one of the first to be established, closed its doors in 1954, but that wasn’t the end for brewing in the Music City. In the last few decades, brewpubs and full-scale breweries have popped up all over town, crafting different types of beer to enjoy. Chris introduces readers to these establishments.
We can’t leave out our own book, This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States, which has a whole chapter on Tennessee. Purchase your copy today!