Whether I’m planning a trip, wanting to travel back to a favourite destination or wanderlusting about somewhere totally foreign to me, reading a book about travelling through the country is one of the first things I do! Before I visited the USA this year, I read lots of books about travelling the USA.
I’m not reading these books to find things to do – that’s what the Internet is for! I read these books for the pleasure of reading about a country I’m fascinated by, picking up bits and pieces about the culture, history and different regions along the way.
I’ll be updating this page as I find more to read!
Books about travelling the USA
Coast to Coast: A Journey Across 1950s America | Jan Morris
This is a collection of essays by renowned Welsh writer, Jan Morris. At the time, Jan was James, and America was also a very different place than it is today. Reading Morris’ work is like stepping back into the 1950’s, yet despite the time difference, her intelligence, curiosity and keen observations made me forget that this book is more than fifty years old. It’s not laugh-out-loud humourous, with a more serious tone, but her eye for detail of everyday life and her ability to make the mundane sparkle with intrigue make Jan Morris one of my favourite travel writers. Her description of arriving in New York is one of the most vivid pieces of writing. If you like this, you’ll love A Writer’s World, a collection of Morris’ essays spanning decades and continents.
“At one time or another I have approached some splendid places, most of them distinct with mystery or age…but none lingers so tenaciously in my memory as the approach to the city of New York, the noblest of American symbols.”
Blue Highways: A Journey into America | William Least Heat Moon
Somewhat of an American roadtrip classic, Blue Highways is loved for Heat-Moon’s poetic, reflective prose as he journeys around America taking the “blue highways.” These are the old highways marked on the map in blue, the old back roads that are literally the roads less travelled as they are superceded by the newer, major routes. It’s a bit of a slow read, and I admit I still haven’t finished it, but I dip into it regularly.
“To the ride of back roads, nothing shows the tone, the voice of a small town more quickly than the breakfast grill or the five-thirty tavern. Much of what the people do and believe and share is evident then.”
Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail | Cheryl Strayed
Reading Wild made me want to strap on my hiking boots (first step: get hiking boots) and get outta town. I’m not sure what made me download Wild in the first place, because a book about walking through the wilderness sounds like it could err on a little boring. I love reading about unusual people and places, different cultures and cuisines. Despite this, Wild had me gripped from cover to (virtual) cover, and itching to see the USA’s beautiful west coast. The movie is good, but the book is much, much better.
“He gestured to the tents around him. ‘We were taking bets who’d arrive first. You or the two boys from back east coming up behind you.’
‘Who won?’ I asked.
Ed thought for a moment. ‘No one,’ he said, and boomed with laughter. ‘None of us bet on you.’ ”
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America | Bill Bryson
I love reading Bill Bryson’s books. Yes, he’s generally a grumpy old man, and occasionally a bit of a prick to hotel staff. More often though, he’s very, funny. I love travel writers that write so clearly that you can picture every detail of the scene, without falling asleep during indulgent paragraphs of description. His withering observations slice right to the core of what he encounters, discarding layers of artifice and fakery with a few well-chosen words.
“As I always used to tell Thomas Wolfe, there are three things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make the waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.”
Apple’s America | R.W. Apple Jr
This one is definitely more for history buffs, as it’s a lot drier and more factual than other books on this list, but just as worthwhile. Apple was a food critic for the New York times, and while he is one of the best food writer’s I’ve ever read, he was certainly not limited to writing just about food. When he travelled for work, he made a huge effort to understand the cities he visited, and eventually published this book. There’s a chapter for 40 U.S. cities, each of which gives great insight into the city’s history, culture and the place that it is today. A good read if you want a bit of background on different parts of the US.
“Boston loves its sports, too. In fact, it has often been said that only three things count here: sports, politics and revenge.”
A Walk in the Woods | Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson returns to his native home and attempts to tackle the east-coast Appalachian Trail to re-acquaint himself with his home country. A starkly different read to Wild, but no less entertaining.
Travels with Charley in Search of America | John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck is one of America’s best-known writers, usually better known for fiction novels Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice & Men. Travels with Charley is by far my favourite of the three, and a great part of that is due to the star of the show – Steinbeck’s genteel poodle, Charley.
“‘Sir,’ I said. ‘This is a unique dog. He does not live by tooth or fang. He respects the right of cats to be cats although he doesn’t admire them. He turns his teps rather than disturb an earnest caterpillar. His greatest fear is that someone will point out a rabbit and suggest he chase it. This is a dog of peace and tranquility. I suggest that the greatest danger to your bears will be pique at being ignored by Charley.'”
In America: Travels with John Steinbeck | Geert Mark
Award-winner journalist and author from the Netherlands, Geert Mark, retraces Steinbeck’s famous journey from Travels with Charley for this book, but some fifty years later. As an outsider to the US, like so many of us who have grown up outside the US but under the country’s constant cultural influence, I think it makes a much more interesting read than if Steinbeck’s route had been retraced by a fellow American.
I’ve left out a couple of notable, obvious classics – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. This is because I haven’t read them yet!
Happy (armchair) travels!
Over to you! What are your favourite books set in the U.S.A?