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Read Your Way Across the USA: 14 Books to Inspire Your Next Trip

By Shannon Reed

03.26.19

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

Courtesy of the publishers

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

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

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It’s impossible to capture the vastness, beauty, and diversity of America’s landscape in a single book, so we’ve rounded up 14 titles, each rooted in a writer’s deep understanding of a distinct region of the country. From reported histories and personal essays in the East to novels paying homage to the Mountain West and trips that take readers everywhere in between, these narratives are about the urban centers that power the United States, as well as the plains and rivers that shape it. Here are our picks for some of the best books, old and new, to inspire your travels around the country.

Escape to the East

The Johnstown Flood
by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1968)

A work of scrupulously researched nonfiction that reads like a novel, this classic was the beloved history writer McCullough’s first success, recounting the devastating 1889 flood that nearly wiped out the booming steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing over 2,000 people. McCullough highlights the role 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.

Buy it: amazon.com

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, 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.

Buy it: amazon.com

The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts
by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2003)

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 is as fond of, and as frustrated by, the terrible and wonderful city as any visitor, as his 13 essays make clear. 

Buy it: amazon.com

Make your way to the Midwest

The House on Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros (Arte Público Press, 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. 

Buy it: amazon.com  

Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2017)

This widely hailed novel from Celeste Ng is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland. The tensions in the complicated and compelling plot are mirrored in the setting, poised between the country’s East and Midwest; its wealth and poverty; and its whiteness and apparent diversity. This page-turner about an arson that affects both the wealthy Richardson family as well as a newly arrived single mother and her teenage daughter fulfills the promise of its first pages by sticking the stunning landing.

Buy it: amazon.com

Desolation Mountain: A Novel
by William Kent Krueger (Atria, 2018)

Kruger, a prolific writer of mysteries set in north Minnesota, often incorporates characters who live on or near American Indian reservations. In his latest of the series featuring private investigator Cork O’Connor, a visiting U.S. senator is killed when her helicopter mysteriously crashes on Desolation Mountain. Cork’s son Stephen, who foresaw the tragedy, joins his father and other characters from the Ojibwe tribe to uncover the truth of what’s happened on the dazzling but haunted mountains they call home.

Buy it: amazon.com

Wind down out West

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, 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 more than 30 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.” 

Buy it: amazon.com

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst
by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, 2016)

The 1970s were an explosive time in the United States. For some solid proof, look to the San Francisco Bay Area, the setting of Jeffrey Toobin’s nonfiction account of the self-styled Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst. The book captures the nearly unbelievable craziness of that particular story, as well as the political and social tensions at the time in the Bay Area. Toobin’s story—full of bombs, guns, and the occasional SLA road trip to hide out in rural Pennsylvania—makes clear that Hearst was far less a victim, and far more a willing participant in the various crimes the SLA committed than most people think.

Buy it: amazon.com

Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover (Random House, 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.

Buy it: amazon.com  

Skip out to the South

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker (Harcourt, 1982)

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Walker’s classic novel won the Pulitzer Prize and has been adapted into an Oscar-winning movie and a Tony-winning musical. The film and Broadway production 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.

Buy it: amazon.com

Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jessamyn Ward (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 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.

Buy it: amazon.com

Stories set all over the map

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, 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.

Buy it: amazon.com

All the Names They Used for God: Stories
by Anjali Sachdeva (Spiegel & Grau, 2018)

The stories in Sachdeva’s short story collection, which received rave reviews from literary luminaries such as Roxane Gay, take place all around the United States: from Missouri’s 19th-century frontier prairie in “The World by Night” to Glacier National Park in “Logging Lake.” Each story includes place so precisely that it almost becomes another character. As a bonus for travel-loving readers, two stories here are about road trips, with characters driving from Montana to Florida in “Anything You Might Want” and from New York to California in “Pleiades.”

Buy it: amazon.com

I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff
by Abbi Jacobson (Grand Central Publishing, 2018)

“I had never been in love before,” Jacobson notes early on in her memoir about a cross-country trip to join the woman she’s fallen for. The book nearly trembles with anxiety and hope, filled as it is with her notes and drawings (and a lot of lists) about her drive from New York to Los Angeles to join her beloved. It’s a perfect distillation of what it’s like to see U.S. cities and small towns through love-fogged glasses, and Jacobson, the cocreator and star of television’s Broad City, is an amiable companion. 

Buy it: amazon.com

>>Next: Your Year in Travel Reading: 12 Books by Female Novelists From Around the World

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