Great Books Set on River Journeys

In looking through my shelves I realized I've read a good number of novels and memoirs that unfold along a river journey.

In thinking about it, rivers are an obvious setting for a good story. Both start out simply, grow as they follow a winding, circuitous path that frequently obscures what comes next... and end up at an inevitable destination.

If I ever write a novel, rest assured a river will figure in prominently.



by James Dickey

Mention "Deliverance" and everyone thinks of the amazing Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jon Voight movie from the 1972. Well, having seen the movie twice and read the book I'm here to tell you that the book is every bit as good. The suspense is slightly more... lyrical? But really — it's just as good.


The African Queen

by C.S. Forester

Look at that — another book that's probably better known for its movie (Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, 1951. Oh, and Bogart won the Oscar for it.) And yet, like "Deliverance," it started as a novel. Not a novel as good as "Deliverance" — this might be one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book — but it's still a fun little read.


Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

This one was made into a movie too — just with a different title. For the very few people who don't know what I'm talking about, read this book and then watch "Apocolypse Now." Can you sense a theme here? Hollywood figured it out years ago — stories that take place on river journeys are box office gold.


Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

by Stephen Ambrose

This is a much larger and more "serious" book than most on the list but it's still quite the page-turner. For those who've never read any Ambrose, he makes American History very accessible. You'll feel like you're reading a great novel.


Running the Amazon

by Joe Kane

This one breaks from the mold. It's a memoir, it wasn't made into a movie, and to be honest? Personally, I didn't find it quite as good as I was hoping it would be. Still, this guy paddled the Amazon. All 4,200 miles of it. In six months. Completely alone. What have you done lately?


Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi

by Jonathan Raban

This is another recommendation, that I haven't read, from my friend Tim. What's it about? Jonathan Raban takes us along as he realizes a lifelong dream of navigating the Mississippi River in a simple sixteen-foot motorboat. To quote the publishers, "Whether fishing for walleye or hunting coon, discussing theology in Prairie Du Chien or race relations in Memphis, Raban is an expert observer of the heartland's estrangement from America's capitals of power and culture, and its helpless nostalgia for its lost past." Note that the Amazon reviews are a bit mixed — some feel it's a bit dated and some feel it's a bit biased. Make sure to read the reader reviews before purchasing.


River-Horse: Across America by Boat

by William Least Heat-Moon

Yet another book I haven't personally read. It was recommended by my favorite Uncle — a very avid reader — who said it was quite enjoyable. That said, the Amazon reviews are very mixed. Many loved it but those who've read his earlier books seemed to feel it was in need of some editing. Take a look at it on Amazon and decide for yourself.


Goodbye to a River: A Narrative

by John Graves

One more I haven't personally read. This one comes to us via a Flashlight Worthy fan, Linda Kay. It's a personal memoir, and local Texas history, told through the author's trip down a small Texas river soon to be changed by a dam project.

In looking at the reviews on Amazon, it seems to be a special book. Reviewers invoked the name Steinbeck and compare the the writing to that of other "naturalist philosophers" such as Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and John McPhee.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

May I make a confession? I've never read this book. And I created this website — a site dedicated to great books, for crying out loud. Personally, I think the blame should lie on the public school system. ;)