Rivers lend themselves to stories, and stories lend themselves to books. So naturally, there have been a couple of great river books over the years. Here are nine masterworks of the genre. Some are pure fiction, others are real-life expeditions, and some have been adopted into award-winning films, but all of them earn a well-deserved spot on any river runners’ bookshelf. Here’s why.
1) The Emerald Mile | By Kevin Fedarko
This epic narrative weaves history, adventure, and environmental politics into a gripping story about the dory boat outfitters, the guides, and the dam engineers on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The Emerald Mile provides a holistic look at river running in the American Southwest, all while following the palm-sweating story of the fastest-run trip down the Grand Canyon.
2) The River Why | By David James Duncan
This coming-of-age tale about Gus Orviston, a young fly fisherman in Oregon, is a must-read for every fly fisherman. The prose is beautiful, humorous, and earnest in its approach to discovering the deeper meaning of life, through fishing. The River Why explores love, environmental issues, and family relationships in a way that’ll make you laugh and want to immediately recommend this one to your friends.
3) A River Runs Through It | By Norman McLean
Here’s a literary masterpiece. The novella is a taut, honest, and heart-wrenching portrayal of two brothers growing up in a fly fishing family in Montana. No book on this list is more quotable than A River Runs Through It, because no book explores huge metaphysical questions in such an easy-going colloquial manner. This is a book to read, read, and read again.
4) River of Doubt | By Candice Millard
Teddy Roosevelt led a remarkable life, but perhaps none of his accomplishments were quite as harrowing as the story told in this national bestselling book. After losing his bid for presidency, Roosevelt attempted the first descent of a 400-mile tributary of the Amazon called the River of Doubt. This dramatic narrative has all the ingredients of a classic adventure tale, yet is also a portrait of the iconic former president.
5) Exploration of the Colorado River | By John Wesley Powell
Powell’s book about his journey through the Grand Canyon is a standard-bearer of adventure literature. It has it all: great unknowns, incredible hardship, courage, and excitement in a jaw-dropping landscape. Read The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons to understand the importance of exploration, and to inspire your biggest dreams as you plan your next adventure.
6) Deliverance | By James Dickey
Here is one of the few instances where the film adaptation is as good as the book. A group of city-dwelling guys escape for the weekend to a Georgia river for a canoe adventure. Ominous underpinnings give way to horrendous events that lead each character to question their moral values. Deliverance is a gripping read that makes us take a look at the dark side of adventures gone wrong.
7) Desert Solitaire |By Edward Abbey
You may wonder why a book about a guy in the desert would make this list, but Desert Solitaire’s chapter “Down the River” is reason enough. It’s where Abbey describes one of the last trips floating through Glen Canyon before the dam was built. But even more than this chapter on the river, Abbey’s passion for meeting wild places on their own terms is contagious, and will serve you well on any adventure.
8) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | By Mark Twain
You might have read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in school, but if you didn’t it’s worth your time and not just because it’s a classic. The Mississippi River is a powerful character in this unforgettable adventure yarn. You can learn a lot about the issues facing this young nation as you float on the Mighty Mississippi with Huck, Tom, and Jim on their homemade raft.
9) The Journals of Lewis and Clark | By Lewis and Clark
For the sheer scope of national, scientific, and cultural significance, this one is tough to beat. Read The Journals of Lewis and Clark if you’re interested in a glimpse into the wildest era of the American West. It’s fascinating to read how they choose their route, trade with natives, map the river course, and document the plants and animals. Along the way they face incredible hardships, yet bear it all with the admirable stoicism of working for a cause far beyond their own.
What are your favorite river books? Chime in below.
Top photo: Pai Shih/Flickr