The Finer Things Club: Classic Literature by Authors of Color

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
August 28, 2020
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
finer things

If you are a fan of the American rendition of The Office, then you are probably already familiar with “The Finer Things Club,” the most exclusive club at Dunder Mifflin first seen in episode 10 of season 4, “Branch Wars” ( November 1, 2007). The club was put together by Pam Beasley, Oscar Martinez, and Toby Flenderson as a way to celebrate books, art, and culture in a “very civilized way.” 

The three meet once a month to discuss their chosen book over a lunch where "there is no paper, no plastic and no work talk allowed." The trio’s setup is quite impressive with real linens, china plates, costumes, and food chosen to match that month’s book setting. Watching them, one can understand Andy Bernard’s desire to join in on the fun. Who wouldn’t want to return to a “more civilized time” where you can discuss literature over fine cups of tea and dainty finger sandwiches? Well who says you can’t!

Book clubs have always been a great way to take some time out of our busy schedules to contemplate literature outside of the classroom. The act of sharing a fine meal can only enhance the experience, especially if you cater your meal to match the time and setting of your novel. So why not take some time to reconnect with friends over a juicy novel and savory meal, even if you have to do it virtually? 

book covers

Originally this list was going to be based on the novels the Office trio originally read: A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden, and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. However, when recommending “classic” literature there is a tendency to focus on works written by white authors, particularly white males. As librarians, our job is to foster a love of reading and to encourage our patrons to broaden their perspectives by exploring experiences outside of their own. With that in mind, I created this list to highlight works of literature written by non-white authors. If you'd like to further expand your reading, check out our ideas for the Read Harder challenges for 2019 and 2020. We hope you're prepared for an enriching adventure!

Orange soufflé.

Orange soufflé. George Arents Collection. NYPL Digital Collections. Image ID: 1191124

When putting together your accompanying menu, try to capture the essence of the novel's setting or the characters' culture. If you are looking for recipes, check out some resources at the bottom of this post.

The point of the Finer Things Club is to invigorate both your mind and your palate. Of course, you can never go wrong with tea and pastries. Just make sure there's no plastic! 

Some of these titles might be familiar from your high school English classes, and some might be completely unknown to you. They are all worth reading or re-reading from a fresh modern perspective, so we encourage you to check out as many as possible!

 With that said, gather your friends, put the kettle on, and get ready to start your own Finer Things Club today! 

Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (11th Century)

Written in the eleventh century, this exquisite portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. Genji, the Shining Prince, is the son of an emperor. He is a passionate character whose tempestuous nature, family circumstances, love affairs, alliances, and shifting political fortunes form the core of this magnificent epic.

Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantes is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas’ epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialized in the 1840s.

Clotel & Other Writings

Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown (1853)

(Available in Clotel & Other Writings by William Wells Brown; edited by Ezra Greenspan. E-book available here.)

First published in December 1853, Clotel was written amid then unconfirmed rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves. The story begins with the auction of his mistress, here called Currer, and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. The Virginian who buys Clotel falls in love with her, gets her pregnant, seems to promise marriage—then sells her. Escaping from the slave dealer, Clotel returns to Virginia disguised as a white man in order to rescue her daughter, Mary, a slave in her father’s house. A fast-paced and harrowing tale of slavery and freedom, of the hypocrisies of a nation founded on democratic principles, Clotel is more than a sensationalist novel. It is a founding text of the African American novelistic tradition, a brilliantly composed and richly detailed exploration of human relations in a new world in which race is a cultural construct.

Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted

Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; edited with an introduction by Hollis Robbins; general editor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1892)

First published in 1892, this stirring novel by the great writer and activist Frances Harper tells the story of the young daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter who travels to the North to attend school, only to be sold into slavery in the South when it is discovered that she has Negro blood. After she is freed by the Union army, she works to reunify her family and embrace her heritage, committing herself to improving the conditions for blacks in America. Through her fascinating characters—including Iola's brother, who fights at the front in a colored regiment—Harper weaves a vibrant and provocative chronicle of the Civil War and its consequences through African American eyes in this critical contribution to the nation's literature.

A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range

Cogewea, the Half Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range by Hum-ishu-ma, "Mourning Dove," given through Sho-pow-tan; notes and biographical sketch by Lucullus Virgil McWhorter; introduction by Dexter Fisher (1927)

One of the first-known novels by a Native American woman, Cogewea is the story of a half-blood girl caught between the worlds of Anglo ranchers and full-blood reservation Indians; between the craven and false-hearted easterner Alfred Densmore and James LaGrinder, a half-blood cowboy and the best rider on the Flathead; between book learning and the folk wisdom of her full-blood grandmother.

The book combines authentic Indian lore with the circumstance and dialogue of a popular romance; in its language, it shows a self-taught writer attempting to come to terms with the rift between formal written style and the comfortable rhythms and slang of familiar speech.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose. 

Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. 


One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the rise and fall, birth and death of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendiá family. Inventive, amusing, magnetic, sad, and alive with unforgettable men and women—brimming with truth, compassion, and a lyrical magic that strikes the soul—this novel is a masterpiece in the art of fiction.


Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.

For more Toni Morrison, check out Where to Start with Toni Morrison

A Novel in Monthly Installments With Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel; translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen. (1992)

This classic love story takes place on the De la Garza ranch, as the tyrannical owner, Mama Elena, chops onions at the kitchen table in her final days of pregnancy. While still in her mother's womb, her daughter weeps so violently she causes an early labor, and little Tita slips out amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon becomes a way of life, and Tita grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers along the way.


Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.

Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.