16 Books About the USA Every Traveler Should Read

These titles traverse the United States and uniquely capture a sense of place while exploring the country’s countless facets.

A selection of book covers

New and classic books make this list of best reads from across the United States.

Courtesy of the publishers

It’s impossible to capture the vastness, beauty, and diversity of America’s landscape in a single book, so we’ve rounded up 16 titles, each rooted in a writer’s deep understanding of a distinct region of the country. They include a memoir in Iowa, a new novel in upstate New York, a mystery in Texas, and trips that take readers by rail, road, canoe, and foot. Here are our picks for some of the top books, old and new, to inform and inspire your travels around the United States.

1. “You Are Here” by Karin Lin-Greenberg (2023)

A dying mall in a small town in upstate New York: What could be more mundane? There’s nothing mundane about this impressive debut novel, which examines a handful of disparate characters all somehow linked to the mall. Each is burdened with ongoing problems in contemporary life: economic woes, racism, violence. It’s a memorable slice of contemporary American life.

Two book covers, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and Colson White head's The Colossus of New York on top of a bright green and yellow background.

Design by Elizabeth See; images courtesy of publishers.

2. “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough (1968)

A work of nonfiction that reads like a novel, this classic was the first success by beloved history writer McCullough. It recounts the devastating 1889 flood that nearly wiped out the booming steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing more than 2,000 people. McCullough highlights the role that steel barons—including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick—played in the tragedy, while also touching on many other famous Americans of the Gilded Age. All the while, he roots his tale in the distinctive landscape of the ancient Allegheny Mountains, the site of the flood.

3. “The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts” by Colson Whitehead (2003)

Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Colson Whitehead gained early renown with this literary love letter to his hometown of New York City. His book of essays begins, “I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don’t know about you.” Fans and skeptics of the city alike will find material to support their viewpoint here; Colson Whitehead is as fond of, and as frustrated by, the terrible and wonderful city as any visitor, as his 13 essays make clear.
For a more recent collection of stories about New York City, this time fiction, try Jamel Brinkley’s Witness (2023).

4. “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” by Bill Bryson (1997)

Bryson is a traveler’s treasure, with many hilarious books about his native United States and adopted home of England. Here, he recounts what happens when he decided, in his 50s, to hike the Appalachian Trail. As he makes his way from Georgia to Maine, Bryson ably captures the beauty of the Appalachian Mountain range. He’s equally adept at conveying the nuisances of camping, representing the diverse ecology of the area (“the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world”), and recounting the impressive history of the trail itself.

5. “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (2007)

The subtitle sums up the book (“Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression”) but doesn’t capture the author’s beguiling mix of wry and wise observations. This is a memoir of a childhood filled with chores as well as such modest pleasures as picnics and gathering wild mushrooms and flowers.

Three book covers, The House on Mango Street, The Last Report on the miracles at little no horse, and Little Heathens on top of a bright lavender and yellow background.

Design by Elizabeth See; images courtesy of the publishers

6. “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros (1984)

Cisneros’s novel is a coming-of-age tale about Esperanza Cordero, a girl growing up in a Chicano and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. It snaps with her understanding of the city and its people, but especially of the main character’s poverty and hope. Early on, she tells readers about her small red house, where “out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet” and how she can’t wait to grow up and move away from home.

7. “The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch” by Miles Harvey (2021)

The subtitle alone of this nonfiction book should attract anyone interested in U.S. history. Harvey presents a fascinating account of James Strange, a con artist who declared himself “king” and established a community of followers, a sort of pirate colony, on an island in Lake Michigan in antebellum America. U.S. history is full of colorful characters of various flavors; here is one of the oddest.

8. “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke (2017)

This first novel in the Highway 59 series takes places in East Texas and focuses on crime investigations by the Black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. Locke is a native of Houston and writes with a vivid sense of place, whether a scene has an urban or rural setting. This book won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel. Other good news: The second book in the series, Heaven, My Home (2019), is equally compelling.

9. “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” by Louise Erdrich (2001)

Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band of Indians, is a National Book Award–winner and has been publishing fiction and poetry for nearly 50 years. Her 2001 novel, set on a small reservation in Montana, is one of her best. It’s narrated by an aging priest worrying over how his death will reveal his secret: He’s actually a woman. The tale slips through time, always resonant with Erdrich’s understanding of her setting, where “through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, a river slid.”

Two book covers, The Color Purple and Licoln Highway on top of a bright pink and yellow background.

Design by Elizabeth See; images courtesy of publishers

10. “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover (2018)

The PEN-nominated Educated deserves lavish praise for the lyrical way Westover explains what it was like being raised by a family of fundamentalist survivalists. But Westover also captures the stark beauty of growing up in the mountains of Utah, with their ability to conceal all kinds of danger, convincing readers by the end that leaving the area was nearly as difficult as leaving her family.

11. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles (2021)

Road-trip novels often head west, but this one covers half the country, heading east from rural Nebraska to New York City in June 1954. The highway of the title was one of the first transcontinental roads in the USA. This picaresque story focuses on a quartet of characters travels to its eastern terminus, Times Square. In this coming-of-age story—two boys are brothers and three know each other from reform school—they only get as far as Omaha before plans go awry. The brothers end up riding the rails to NYC, the first of many mishaps during 10 days of adventures to reclaim their stolen car.

12. “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker (1982)

Walker’s classic novel won the Pulitzer Prize and has been adapted into an Oscar-winning movie and a Tony-winning musical—with a new musical adaptation on the way. The adaptations are worth viewing, but the book is immensely readable, focusing on Celie, an African American girl growing up in rural Georgia. Celie’s hardscrabble upbringing is the subject, while the landscape around her provides the epic scope of the book. Many readers feel that they’ve taken a trip to the early 20th-century South by the time they’re done.

13. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

“I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight,” is the opening of Ward’s lyrical, compelling novel, winner of the National Book Award. The story of a modern family (and a pair of ghosts) traveling from their home on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to the state penitentiary, the novel captures the lushness and unease of that part of the country. Violence and death ensue, but Ward’s depiction of familial love is what really haunts readers. It’s hard to think of a modern novel more of its place than this one. Her highly praised newest novel, Let Us Descend (2023), goes back in time in its exploration of slavery on a journey from the Carolinas to Louisiana.

Three book covers, Assassination Vacation, Riverman, and The Collected Stories of Eudora-Welty on top of a bright blue and yellow background.

Design by Elizabeth See; images courtesy of the publishers

14. “Riverman: An American Odyssey” by Ben McGrath (2022)

This is a biography of an unheralded explorer, Dick Conant, who spent years traveling U.S. rivers by canoe, driven by wanderlust. His trips included canoeing solo down the Mississippi and paddling from the Yellowstone River to the Missouri. While on a journey from New York to Florida, his empty canoe turned up in North Carolina in 2014. What happened to the vagabond who disappeared is only a part of this story.

15. “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell (2005)

Vowell has written a series of wryly funny books about U.S. history, but her masterpiece is this account of her road trip to various sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. Vowell travels from New York to Ohio to Texas to Washington, D.C., blending her observations about the countryside and its people with deeply researched facts about the murders. Somehow, Vowell manages to entertain while educating readers about disturbing history.

16. “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” by Eudora Welty (1980)

This hefty volume spans almost half a century of stories by an American master of the short story. The settings are generally the South, ranging from historical (“A Still Moment,” about John James Audubon) to modern. If you prefer novels, Welty also wrote many of them, including The Optimist’s Daughter, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1973. Welty spent nearly all of her life in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Her eye for detail and empathy for people is evident in her black-and-white photos of Depression-era Mississippi, which you can view in the collection Eudora Welty: Photographs.

For a more recent set of short stories, try All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva (2018), set in various U.S. locales, including Missouri. Each story includes place so precisely that it almost becomes another character. A bonus for travel-loving readers: Two stories are about long road trips.

This article was originally published in 2019 and most recently updated on December 11, 2023 with current information. Note: the dates for each book refers to the year of its first publication.

Shannon Reed is a writer and professor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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