The best books about rivers and the people who leave alongside them

Ben Coates Author Of The Rhine
By Ben Coates

The Books I Picked & Why

Old Glory: An American Voyage

By Jonathan Raban

Book cover of Old Glory: An American Voyage

Why this book?

In Old Glory, the English travel writer Jonathan Raban sets out in a small motorboat to navigate one of America’s greatest rivers, the Mississippi, all the way from Minneapolis to New Orleans and beyond. The book is, like many great travel books, the tale of a grand adventure, packed with near-calamities and dangerous encounters with whirlpools and wildlife. Raban nearly drowns, falls in love twice, and drinks a lot of whisky. Yet it’s also much more than a straightforward travelogue. As an outsider, Raban offers dozens of sharp observations on American history, race relations, culture, and the gaps between the country’s heartlands and its major cities. Written forty years ago, it still feels fresh and topical today.

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Blue River, Black Sea

By Andrew Eames

Book cover of Blue River, Black Sea

Why this book?

The Danube vies with the Rhine for the title of Europe's Amazon: a behemoth that spans a huge swathe of the continent, flowing from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. In this book, Andrew Eames travels along the river by bicycle, horse, boat, and on foot, meeting everyone from royals to boatmen and gypsies, and providing a sparkling history of south-eastern Europe on the way. Before Covid, I was planning to travel along the Danube myself and hopefully write something about it. If that ever happens, this will be in my backpack.

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The White Nile

By Alan Moorehead

Book cover of The White Nile

Why this book?

The White Nile is another classic, telling the story of how European explorers “discovered” Africa’s greatest river in the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s a rollicking tale, featuring cameos from everyone from Herodotus to Churchill, packed with wild tales of bull-headed men marching into areas which were, for them, literally blank spaces on the map. Some of the prose inevitably feels a little dated these days, but it overflows with drama and detail, and provides a fascinating insight into the history of a region which many people still know too little about. I lived near the source of the Nile in Uganda for quite a while, and have many happy memories of reading this before heading out for a swim.

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The Dutch and Their Delta: Living Below Sea Level

By Jacob Vossestein

Book cover of The Dutch and Their Delta: Living Below Sea Level

Why this book?

This book tells the story of how the people of the Netherlands – the country where I’ve lived for more than a decade, and which I wrote my first book about – have not just managed to survive below sea level, in a land riddled with rivers and canals, but managed to turn their boggy environment to their advantage, becoming grandmasters at building dikes, draining land and constructing water-pumping windmills. The book isn’t a heavy read – the emphasis is on photos, maps, and interesting factoids – but it’s full of insights into everything from how Amsterdam was built to why the Dutch aren’t too worried about climate change. Perfect reading when I’m sitting in my garden in the Dutch countryside, with water on both sides.

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Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

By Roger Deakin

Book cover of Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

Why this book?

Waterlog isn’t strictly speaking just about rivers but about all kinds of open water, from streams and lochs to lidos and oceans. In it, Roger Deakin sets out to explore Britain at water level swimming his way through countless towns and natural spaces, dodging coastguards and water bailiffs, motorboats storms, and whirlpools. Again, there’s plenty of adventure involved but it’s also a thoughtful, elegiac work; blending autobiography, cultural history, travelogue, and nature writing. It’s impossible to read without wanting to go and get wet somewhere.

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