We all know about beach reading – beachy books are the ones that you speed through, the ones you don’t mind getting sand in, the ones whose plots twists pull you along with tidal force, keeping you up at night as you race towards the conclusion.
But what should you read when you’re dangling your feet in a slow-moving river, or drifting downstream on a makeshift raft? We’ve got five books that just might hit the spot for river lovers everywhere.
Forget that horrible high school literature class you had – Huckleberry Finn is a quintessential river journey book. It defies any romantic expectations you might have, giving a decidedly unheroic vision of American life along the Big Muddy. As the complex relationships unfold amidst the strangeness of the Jim Crow South, the river itself becomes a character – and one that it’s difficult to ignore.
Favorite quote: “We catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a kind of low chuckle. We had mighty good weather, as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all, that night, nor the next, nor the next.”
In 1994, Simon Winchester followed the Yangtze River’s entire course – from its mouth at the East China Sea to its headwaters Tibet. As he dives into the “delicious strangeness” of the country, he confronts the singular position the river holds in China’s national psyche.
Review from Publishers Weekly: “Wryly humorous, gently skeptical, immensely knowledgeable as he wends his way along the 3900 miles of the great river, Winchester provides an irresistible feast of detail about the character of the river itself, the landscape, the cities, villages and people along its banks.”
After a life-threatening illness and a series of deaths in her family, Katharine Norbury decided to walk across England, following various rivers from the sea to their source – often with her young daughter in tow. Her descriptive gifts are unparalleled, and it’s a joy to discover these river landscapes through her poetic eyes. Along the way, we discover that she is adopted, and has never been able to make contact with her birth mother. This journey, through a bizarre turn of events, will change all that.
Favorite quote: “Each body of water plaited with the next, twisting first into a bubbling thread and then into a silver rope. When we were out walking, the waters became our guide, companion and teacher. They marked a border between different states of being: solid, liquid, air. And they kept moving, were – quite literally – defined by their movement. Wherever we went, we sought them out and it seemed fitting that the longest river in Britain should rise just a few miles from my birth mother’s house.”
The Magdalena River in Colombia is the spine of that country – a place that’s wild, mysterious and suffused with history. Writer Michael Jacobs journeyed up the river in search of its mysteries at the same time as his mother was losing her mind to dementia, and he uses his exploration of Colombia’s physical landscape and bloody past to examine larger questions of memory and forgiveness. As he nears the river’s source, things heat up: He has a run-in with a remnant of guerrilla forces, and takes us through the magical, pre-historic rock carvings that guard the beginnings of the great river.
Favorite moment: Just before he starts his journey up to the river’s source, Michael Jacobs meets none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez by chance in a bar in Barranquilla. The ailing author is already in the process of losing his memory, but when Garcia Marquez learns of Jacobs’ impending trip, he says to him: “I remember absolutely everything about the river, absolutely everything.”
We can’t have a summer river reading list without Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez grew up along the Magdalena River in Colombia, and the river held an endless fascination for him. The Magdalena is a third character in this book, which traces the story of two lovers (who never marry) across their lifetimes. Marquez needs no introduction: He’s one of the great voices of 20th century literature.
“Love is the only thing that interests me,” he said.
“The trouble,” his uncle said to him, “is that without river navigation there is no love.”
Now go get reading, river lovers!