J. Anthony Lukas reading from "Common Ground" in Boston, 1986

Common Ground is one of the most famous books ever written about Boston, and I wish I'd read it sooner -- the last 17 years would have made an awful lot more sense. It is, famously, a novelistic non-fiction work about public school desegregation in the 1970s. It is epic, covering a decade in the lives of three families. But it is also, more generally, the finest book about Boston that I know of. Its first few chapters offer a concise and penetrating history of the city from multiple perspectives. 

There is a great set piece in the book about the night James Brown saved the city -- and how the city bitched out on paying James his full fee. You could source a pretty detailed walking tour of Boston's African American heritage -- from Martin Luther King's dorm room to Malcolm X's childhood home -- by thumbing through its pages. The bank robbery in The Town pales in comparison to Lukas's multi-generation history of Charlestown horse and car thievery.

Common Ground turned 25 last year and nobody brought it up. That's a shame, because the book is a treasure and although its author is dead, many of the people in it are still alive. We content that it would not be too late for some interested and able party to pull together a panel discussion on the legacy of the book -- and on the question of whether we've really made much progress over the past quarter century. After all, while the book came out in 1985, it did not win the Pulitzer until 1986. Late in that year, apparently in November, Lukas gave this talk at the Boston Public Library. The book was already famous and Lukas, modest by nature, was being feted by journalists all over town.

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