My personal library has about 250 books that are directly about the Mississippi River and the communities along its banks. I’ve read most of them, even though my to-read list seems to get longer every year. This year, for a change, I read more books than I bought, so my pile of unread books got a little shorter.
I tend to read in thematic bursts, usually because there’s a topic I want to write about. I started the year intending to read about different kinds of boats that have traveled the Mississippi, but after I read a terrific book on canoes, I detoured to reading a few old travelogues from people who paddled the river. I also went deep with James Eads and the bridge he helped build at St. Louis, then finished the year reading about the native peoples of the Americas.
I generally prefer books that tell stories that aren’t well-known and that avoid self-conscious myth-making. I’m drawn to books that tell the whole story, warts and all.
With that in mind, below are a few books from my 2017 reading list that I highly recommend (in alphabetical order). (Note: While these books were new to me, none was newly published in 2017.)
An eye-opener that challenged almost everything I thought I knew about the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann covers a lot of territory in this book, from cities that are among the oldest in the world (Huaricanga, roughly 3500 BC) to the only large pre-Columbian city in North America (Cahokia), to the writing systems that developed in the Americas, and to the proliferation of agriculture. Most striking of all, though—at least to me—were the numerous examples of how the natives of the Americas manipulated the natural world for their benefit. Not only were the Americas far more populous than I was taught in school, but their impact on the natural world was so extensive, it left me wondering if there’s such a thing as “pristine” or “untouched” wilderness.
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich (2014)
Part travelogue and part memoir, this short book from Louise Erdrich, one of America’s great contemporary writers, is beautifully written, entertaining and enlightening. As she drove to visit friends and family in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario, she detoured to explore aspects of Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indian culture and language. I was especially captivated by her descriptions of the old birch bark scrolls (mazinibaganjigan in Ojibwe) that the Ojibwe used for centuries to transmit important religious, historical, and mathematical concepts from one generation to the next.
Canoes: A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims (2016)
Everything you ever wanted to know about canoes but were afraid to ask. The book is filled with gorgeous illustrations of canoes and the outdoors accompanied by detailed descriptions of canoe design and construction, from the earliest canoes built by Native Americans to modern canoes built with synthetic materials. The detailed descriptions of construction techniques may not be for everyone, but the book has plenty of other material on the historical and cultural significance of one of the simplest and most enduring human inventions ever conceived.
Down the Mississippi by Major R. Raven-Hart (1938)
English native Major Rowland Raven-Hart was a world traveler with a fondness for canoes and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. In 1937, he and a friend put a 17-foot collapsible canoe into the Mississippi River at Hannibal and began a 37-day “cruise” that ended in Baton Rouge. Along the way, they paddled naked, camped, searched for fresh milk, swam naked, and chatted with people living or working on the Mississippi River (clothed, presumably). Raven-Hart paddled the river when it was in the middle of a massive federa