Long before highways were constructed and cars used, rivers were one of the most efficient way of travelling and the main entry-points to explore mysterious lands. Thus, classic travel books about rivers abound.
Rivers also hold a deep significance to communities: their complex eco-systems provide water and nurture communities since the beginning of time. Where there are rivers, crops abound and fluvial civilizations flourish, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the Mississippi and the Amazon.
These books about rivers speak not only about these water currents, but about the human spirit: always going further, building community ties and fighting for these ties not to be destroyed.
In this post you will find 10 books about rivers.
But I’ve made an exclusive ‘Books about rivers’ reading list
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10 books about rivers – the ultimate fluvial reading list
1. ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ by Alec Soth
A shy, young photographer who had almost given up on becoming a known artist started driving along the Mississippi and taking pictures.
The photobook he later produced (‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’) changed documentary photography in the 21sth century since its publication in 2004.
Alec Soth used “the river as a route to connect with people along the way.”
His thoughtful portraits (which have become new classics in documentary photography) provide a deep and universal narrative.
2. ‘Greatham Creek’ by Ian Macdonald
Everything Cafe Royal Books publishes has an aura of fugacity: a moment and a place, captured by a number of British photographers and that might never exist again.
This is specially the case with ‘Greatham Creek’ by Ian Macdonald. The book documents a community of fishers living in cabins and houseboats in the estuary of the River Tees.
It was 1975 and many people moved to this community to fish for salmon during the summer months.
This photographic project and zine preserve memories from this place, now that it is gone.
3. ‘Waterlog: a swimmers guide through Britain’ by Roger Deakin
What Roger Deakin did in ‘Waterlog: a swimmers guide through Britain’ is not only invent a new travelling experience, but show how freedom and creativity go along with travel.
In 1996, Roger Deakin set off to swim across the British Islands (through creeks, rivers, canals and other water places). Along the way, he met people and discovered places.
The book speaks of a truly imaginative man determined to show that there’s always something extraordinary to discover if you have the right attitude.
4. ‘The Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad
The fictional Charles Marlow and his story of going down the Congo river have long fascinated explorers and readers.
‘The Heart of Darkness’ is a fictional story about a trip to the center of Africa, going up-river to meet the mysterious Coronel Kurt.
The whole story revolves around this man, whose descent into madness serves as a critique of Europe’s powers and its exploitation of Africa.
‘The Heart of Darkness’ is a river : on one side, Marlow acts as a narrator, telling what has happened to him to his audience on a boat on the river Thames.
On the other side, his adventures in Africa happen when he travels by boat “to the heart of darkness”, where he meets Kurtz.
A short novel by Joseph Conrad published in 1899 which raised questions about Imperialism at a time when African territories were still considered colonies. It also famously inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’.
5.‘Up-River’ by Andre Luetzen
Photographer Andre Luetzen follows Joseph Conrad’s real-life trip in Africa, onboard a boat on the Congo river, which he took in 1890.
His ‘Up-River’ photobook feels like a feverish dream where mud, people, plants and animals provide a continuation of ‘The Heart of Darkness’.
6. ‘Kuçedra’ by Nick St. Oegger
In Albanian mythology, the Kuçedra is a dragon-like creature who brings great misfortune to the land and people: it blocks rivers, causes droughts and floods and can only be placated through human sacrifice.
‘Kuçedra’ is also the name of a photobook by documentary photographer Nick St.Oegger, who travelled to Albania to capture life along the Vjosa, Europe’s last wild river.
7. ‘Rivers of Power’ by Alejandro Cartagena
‘Rivers of Power’ is the story of a “captive” river. The Santa Catarina River passes through the Mexican city of Monterrey, whose generous current had traditionally nurtured life in the area.
After the first attempt to control it in 1909 with wells and pipes, it flooded taking the lives of 5,000 people. Since then, a number of engineering efforts to control the Santa Catarina River power and destroy it.
With ‘Rivers of Power’, Alejandro Cartagena takes a position to defend the natural power of a river, against the human’s obsession of controlling and erasing it.
8. ‘Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado’ by Rebecca Solnit, Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe
‘Drowned River’ speaks of how the Colorado River disappeared and how it came back.
In 1963 the waters began rising behind Glen Canyon Dam and 170 miles of the Colorado River slowly disappeared as the riverbed and surrounding canyons filled with water.
But it’s coming back, in a victory that is also the pervasive disaster of climate change. There isn’t enough water in our new age, and so the world that drowned half a century ago is reappearing.
Byron Wolfe, Mark Klett, and Rebecca Solnit spent half a decade exploring the place as the river reappeared. What they found is shown ‘Drowned River‘, in photographs and words.
9. ‘Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios’ by Holly Fitzgerald
An adventurous American couple on their honeymoon in the 1970s decide to raft down the Madre de Dios river (a tributary to the Amazon).
Things turn ugly when their self-made raft gets pushed by a huge storm into an unknown current and their food supplies get destroyed.
What follows is an incredible journey where inner strength and hope makes their raft stay afloat. Their story is told in ‘Ruthless River’ written by Holly Fitzgerald herself.
10. ‘To the River’ by Olivia Laing
In 1941, Virginia Woolf drowned herself by walking into the Ouse, her pockets full of stones.
Sixty years later, Olivia Laing walked along Woolf’s river from source to sea for a week. ‘To the River’ is the result.
As she walks, she investigates into the landscape’s history, the roles rivers play in human lives and many other things.