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

Ben Coates Author Of The Rhine
By Ben Coates

Who am I?

I'm an Anglo-Dutch writer living in the Netherlands, and the author of two books. Growing up in England I never thought much about rivers, but in the Netherlands they’re hard to avoid, and I’ve become fascinated by them. These days, when we all work remotely and (when rules allow) usually travel by car, train, or plane rather than boat, it’s easy to think of rivers as just scenic backdrops, rather than anything more important. But the truth is many of our cities wouldn’t exist without the waters which flow through them, and waterways like the Rhine, Thames, and Seine have had a huge influence on the history and culture of the people living alongside them. If you want to understand why somewhere like Rotterdam, London or Paris is the way it is, you could spend the day in a library or museum – but you’d be better off going for a boat ride or swim, poking around under some bridges and talking to the fishermen, boatmen, and kayakers down at the waterline.


I wrote...

The Rhine

By Ben Coates,

Book cover of The Rhine

What is my book about?

The Rhine is one of the world's greatest rivers. Once forming the outer frontier of the Roman Empire, it flows 800 miles from the fun-loving Netherlands, through the industrial and political powerhouses of Germany and France, to the wealthy mountain fortresses of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. For years, Ben Coates lived alongside a major channel of the river in Rotterdam, crossing it daily, swimming and sailing in its tributaries. In The Rhine, he sets out to follow the river all the way across Europe; exploring the impact the river has had on European culture and history, and on the people who live alongside it. From rowing Dutch canals to riding a cow through the Alps, via Cold War nuclear bunkers, raucous Gay Pride parades, tranquil Lake Constance, and snowy mountain climbs, The Rhine blends travelogue and offbeat history to tell the fascinating story of how one river helped our world.

The books I picked & why

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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.

Old Glory: An American Voyage

By Jonathan Raban,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Old Glory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Jonathan Raban is one of the world's greatest living travel writers.' William Dalrymple

'The best book of travel ever written by an Englishman about the United States' Jan Morris, Independent

Navigating the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans, Raban opens himself to experience the river in all her turbulent and unpredictable old glory. Going wherever the current takes him, he joins a coon-hunt in Savana, falls for a girl in St Louis, worships with black Baptists in Memphis, hangs out with the housewives of Pemiscot and the hog-king of Dubuque. Through tears of laughter, we are led into the…


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.

Blue River, Black Sea

By Andrew Eames,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blue River, Black Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Danube is Europe's Amazon. It flows through more countries than any other river on Earth - from the Black Forest in Germany to Europe's farthest fringes, where it joins the Black Sea in Romania. Andrew Eames' journey along its length brings us face to face with the Continent's bloodiest history and its most pressing issues of race and identity.

As he travels - by bicycle, horse, boat and on foot - Eames finds himself seeking a bed for the night with minor royalty, hitching a ride on a Serbian barge captained by a man called Attila and getting up…


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.

The White Nile

By Alan Moorehead,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The White Nile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Relive all the thrills and adventure of Alan Moorehead's classic bestseller The White Nile -- the daring exploration of the Nile River in the second half of the nineteenth century, which was at that time the most mysterious and impenetrable region on earth. Capturing in breathtaking prose the larger-than-life personalities of such notable figures as Stanley, Livingstone, Burton and many others, The White Nile remains a seminal work in tales of discovery and escapade, filled with incredible historical detail and compelling stories of heroism and drama.


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.

The Dutch and Their Delta: Living Below Sea Level

By Jacob Vossestein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dutch and Their Delta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All over the world, people learn in school that the Netherlands is a country that lies below sea-level. Dikes, polders, windmills and wooden shoes are well-known icons of this unusual nation, while its sturdy dams and storm surge barriers also enjoy world fame. But how does it all work? How can a country exist under such circumstances and even be prosperous? One would expect the Dutch to panic about climate change but they don’t seem to be; how come? This book will tell you all about it, both in words and photos, striking a balance between developments in the past,…


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.

Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

By Roger Deakin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Waterlog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Mother Jones' Best Book of the Year

"A beautiful ode to the act of swimming outdoors. . . . Deakin’s insistence on wild swimming for all is really an insistence on a better ecosystem for all." ―The Atlantic

A masterpiece of nature writing, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog is a fascinating and inspiring journey into the aquatic world that surrounds us.

In an attempt to discover his island nation from a new perspective, Roger Deakin embarks from his home in Suffolk to swim Britain―the seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, pools, streams, lochs, moats, and quarries. Through the watery capillary network that braids…


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