As much as I love wandering around bookstores, I’ve actually discovered the majority of my favorite books through specific recommendations from friends and acquaintances. Without a trusted personal endorsement, I would have never found many of my all-time favorites.
In an effort to encourage more book conversations, I send out a brief, bimonthly email in which I recommend some of the best books I’ve recently read. The topics are wide-ranging: heavy on history, biographies, adventure, ranching, conservation, and travel narratives, with a good mix of other predominately non-fiction subjects. Some titles will be familiar and others obscure, but the common theme is that I found them very interesting, entertaining, and worthy of a recommendation to my friends.
Keep in mind that this email is only related to book recommendations—no sales pitches for ranches, and of course, I won’t share your email address with anyone. Just one quick email every other month with a few high-quality recommendations. You can check out a few of my recent recommendations here:
A Few of My (Current) Favorite Books About the West
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris – My favorite book of all time. Reading this book kicked off my obsession with TR, and has led me to read everything about him and by him that I can get my hands on. This book describes his first 42 years of life, from birth through the Vice Presidency, in which he was (among other things) a naturalist, author, politician, soldier, rancher, deputy sheriff, fighter, hunter, civil servant, New York City police commissioner, and governor. The amount that TR accomplished in his 60 years of life is hard to comprehend, but he sets an excellent example of how to live life to the fullest— “The Strenuous Life” as he described it. If TR’s life were not so well documented, I would never believe this book to be true. [If you’re looking for more TR, you should also definitely read The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.]
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides – Usually mainstream history books are either ridiculously dense or highly entertaining… but rarely both. Sides somehow manages to cram an overwhelming amount of information on Kit Carson, the settlement of the American West, the Navajos, and plenty of other subjects into this book, all while keeping it engaging and fun to read. One of the top five books I’ve read in years. Highly recommended. [Another excellent Native American-themed book is Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne.]
For the Love of Land: Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature’s Image by Jim Howell – Even though I’ve been working with ranches and ranchers for over 10 years now, this book changed my perspective on the positive role that livestock can play in conserving the grasslands of the American West. The book covers a wide array of topics from natural history to ecology, and also presents real-world case studies that help to demonstrate Howell’s ideas. Anyone interested in the history of the West and the future of land conservation should keep this book within arm’s reach! [Another ranching book that has positively influenced by thinking is Ranching West of the 100th Meridian: Culture, Ecology, and Economics by Richard Knight et. al.]
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner – With its perfect combination of adventure, natural history, geography, and conservation, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone living in the American West. It’s the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed, self-educated Civil War vet who was the first to lead a descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He was a tough, brave explorer who subsequently became an expert on the watersheds of the American West. Powell went on to spend much of his life advocating for the responsible, sustainable settlement of the most arid regions of the United States. Unfortunately, the expansion-at-all-costs government of the day failed to heed Powell’s warnings, and today many of the consequences he predicted are coming home to roost. [For the most definitive account of water in the West, read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner.]
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose – This book should be required reading for everyone living in the American West. It’s Western History 101. Lewis and Clark’s expedition laid the foundation for all future exploration and settlement of the West, and it is important to understand Jefferson’s motivations and the details of the arduous journey. It is just insane how tough these explorers were. I’m sure there have been many books written on the subject, but this one offers a solid, entertaining, and detailed overview of the subject. [As soon as you finish Undaunted Courage, check out Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier by Peter Stark.]
All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner – Most people who live outside of the West have never heard of Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, but these two men are responsible for defining many of our current ideas about the West, land use, and conservation (see my Stegner recommendation above). In this double biography, Gessner compares and contrasts the two icons, while offering some interesting (and often hilarious) insights on the current state of conservation in the American West. It’s worth noting that everything I’ve ever read by Gessner makes me laugh and think hard, even months after I finished the books.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I almost never read fiction, but I’m so glad I read this one. It is one of the best books I have ever, or will ever, read. It’s the story of a massive cattle drive from Texas to Montana during the late 1800s, and it describes the settlement of the American West in a way that no non-fiction book could ever do. There’s no point in my trying to describe the plot, the characters, or anything about it, because I can’t do it justice. Don’t watch the movie. Buy the book. Read it immediately.
American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella – Long before there were cows or humans on the North American continent, there were bison. When Europeans began settling America, there were somewhere between 60 and 100 million bison roaming the continent. By the late 1800s, thanks to systematic slaughter by Americans, there were only around 800 left. In this very enjoyable book, Rinella gives the reader a huge amount of history, facts, and data related to bison and the settlement of the American West, all laid over his own personal narrative of hunting a wild bison (with a proper permit) in the Alaskan wilderness. You’ll be smarter after reading this book. [To go even deeper into the history of buffalo, read Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West by Michael Punke.]
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan – Anyone who has spent time in southeast Colorado, western Oklahoma, or northwest Texas needs to read this book. It’s the story of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and it describes the settlement of the Great Plains, the boom and bust of the wheat markets, and the eventual drought that destroyed both the land and many of the hard-working homesteaders who lived there. It’s truly unbelievable what hardships these people endured, and it’s shocking to learn about the huckster businessmen and government crooks who played such an active role in creating the disaster. The story serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the consequences of out-of-control speculation and blatant disrespect for the land. [If you don’t know how to read, Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl is an acceptable alternative.]
Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban – This book had been on my “to-read” list for quite a while, but a recent work trip to eastern Montana prompted me to bump it to the top of the list—an amazing book that I should’ve read years ago. It’s a history of the settlement of eastern Montana combined with the author’s personal journey traveling through and learning about this uniquely American landscape and culture. Raban details the railroads’ marketing trickery that convinced aspiring emigrants to pack up and move to a 320-acre patch of treeless, dry, windswept grassland. He explains the government’s propaganda touting the lie that “rain follows the plow,” which convinced most of these settlers to plow up healthy grass and plant crops that would not grow. Raban is British, so he brings an outsider’s perspective to his analysis, completely free of the romantic biases that Americans often harbor toward the West. Enlightening, funny, and entertaining—highly recommended.
Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores – I love books that go deep on one very specific subject, and this is one of my favorites. The coyote is a controversial figure, especially here in the American West, and understanding this highly intelligent animal—and humans’ relationship with it—provides some interesting insights into the history of North America, our relationships with other species, and some of the comical ways we’ve gone about trying to control the natural world. The book covers all aspects of the animal, from its evolutionary past to its relationship with Native Americans, and its ability to outwit our best efforts to exterminate it from the planet. Whether you love them or hate them (or can’t distinguish a coyote from a German Shepard), you’ll walk away from this book with new insights into humans, animals, and the North American landscape.
American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains by Dan Flores – If you have an interest in natural history and love the American West, this book should be required reading. It gives an overview of the history of large mammals in North America—also known as “charismatic megafauna’—which included lions, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and giant long-horned bison, to name a few. Then Flores digs into detail on some of North America’s remaining large mammals, including pronghorn, coyotes, horses, grizzlies, bison, and wolves. I marked up almost every page of this book with notes and highlights, as each chapter gave me new insights into the why things are the way they are in the West. Flores balances natural history and science with humor and clean prose, making this book a real pleasure to read. I predict I’ll be referring back to this book often.
It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays by Wendell Berry – In my circle of friends involved in land conservation and agriculture, Wendell Berry is a living legend. A Stanford-educated writer and poet who studied under Wallace Stegner, Berry choose to return home to his family farm in rural Kentucky to live, farm, and write, all while deeply immersed in a place that he loves. The first essay in this book is a reflection on the importance of truly knowing a place, having deep affection for it, and developing the obligation to protect and care for it. I imagine that I’ll read this essay at least once a year, as it is one of those dense, meaningful, beautifully written works that will take on a different significance depending on my current stage of life.
Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney After nearly a decade of struggling to figure out original ways to accurately describe ranches, rivers, and western landscapes, this book was a godsend. More of a reference book than prose, it’s a comprehensive catalog of over 850 terms that describe America’s natural features. Even better, the terms’ original definitions were composed by some of our best contemporary writers, folks like Jon Krakauer, Charles Frazier, and many more. I’ve caught myself looking up one word, and then continuing to read, page after page, because it’s all just so interesting. Highly recommended for anyone like me who thrashes through the writing process.
The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko – This book hits on many of the subjects I love: adventure, history, conservation, the West, water, and crazy people. The title sums up the primary storyline, but the book covers many ancillary topics including Coronado’s 14th-century expedition to the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell’s first descent of the Colorado (a nice summary of Beyond the 100th mentioned above), a history of the US’s river-damming efforts (and ensuing protests from Edward Abbey et. al.), and the culture of river guiding in the West. If you enjoy exciting adventure stories and want an overview of the history of Western water issues, this book is an excellent choice.
The Wire That Fenced the West by Frances and Henry McCallum – Who would ever think that a book about nothing but barbed wire could be interesting? I was skeptical at first, but since reading it, I’ve found myself thinking about this book on a regular basis. Be forewarned, it starts out a little dry with an overly detailed history of the invention and patenting of barbed wire. But it’s worth pushing through the minutia, because what follows is a fascinating discussion of how barbed wire affected the settlement of the West, private property rights, and the rise of the cattle industry, and allowed the West to become an economically viable landscape. I finished this book with a new appreciation for barbed wire – one of the most influential, game-changing, and highly underrated inventions of the last 200 years.
Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton – This is the book I’ve been waiting for since I moved West in 2005. It’s a comprehensive history of the settlement of the West, as shaped by the rapid expansion (and dramatic implosion) of the cattle ranching business. I loved this book because it’s broad enough to offer a solid overview of the timeframe of the first cattle drives north from Texas, but it also zooms in on specific individuals and events that were instrumental in fueling the western cattle boom. Despite my involvement in the ranching world and my voracious appetite for western history, I learned a lot from this book, specifically the influence of European investment on western settlement. To add to my excitement, there is lots of discussion of TR and his involvement in the West, which is always a welcome subject.
Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch by Dan O’Brien – This book combines many of the subjects I find fascinating: ranching, natural history, bison, conservation, the American West, and regenerative agriculture. It follows the author’s journey to convert his South Dakota ranch from a traditional cattle operation to a 100% grassfed and finished bison operation, which, as it turns out, is not an easy task. I had the pleasure of meeting the author a year ago, and he’s equal parts tough-guy rancher and soft-hearted intellectual—he seems just as likely to write a verse of poetry as he is to finish a bar fight. The book thoroughly explains the economic and emotional challenges facing ranchers throughout the West, while digging deep into the historical and ecological aspects of flora and fauna, particularly buffalo, in the shortgrass prairie ecosystem. [If you like this book, I’d also suggest O’Brien’s most recent title: Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land.]
Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger Di Silvestro – There’s no such thing as “too much TR,” and this book is one of my favorites. It focuses exclusively on the time he spent ranching, hunting, and living in the Dakota Territories during the late 1880s. On Valentine’s Day 1884, both TR’s mother and wife died within hours of each other, from unrelated causes. The tragic event caused the young TR to take a break from political life, become a cattleman, and devote his time and energy to “the strenuous life” of the American West. There’s no question that TR’s time in the Badlands shaped his views on conservation and gave him a lifelong love of the West and its people. [Still need more TR??! Then go straight to the source with Hunting Trips of a Ranchman by the man himself, Theodore Roosevelt.]