5 Books You Need to Read to Better Appreciate the Outdoors

I am a huge believer in the school of thought that you have to understand something to better appreciate it.

Sure, you could just bumble your way into the wilderness without a clue of what is at the soul of hiking and existing in nature, but why not get the full picture?

Trust me, you want the full picture.

Here are five books you need to read to understand what is at the heart of the natural world.

#1: Walden – Henry David Thoreau

This is a classic and, even if you aren’t a hiker, you are doing yourself a disservice by not reading it. This book takes you into the mind of one of the pinnacle nature lovers of the literary canon. The effluence of his writing is only paralleled by its content. After reading it, you will understand more of the mindset of a real outdoorsman. Thoreau is a true romantic in the way he speaks of the outdoors. Maybe he will show you the way.

#2: The Prelude (1805) – William Wordsworth

Wordsworth comes from a different angle. Better stated, it’s a right hook. As one of the better nature poets in existence, he approaches the subject of nature straight from the heart. If you are able to get used to his style of verse (as it is written in stanzas rather than prose), you will come away with an ultimate understanding of how to appreciate nature. It is an autobiography of his love affair with being outdoors and thus it is quite personal. Because of this, you will understand his mindset on a personal level and develop a fondness for perceiving things his way.

#3: Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Ah yes, crazy ol’ Edward Abbey. Another right hook… and then a jab to top it off. Abbey is all piss and vinegar, all the time. A true naturalist, he clouts you upside the head with his adamant belief in the sanctity of the natural world and lays you down laughing. Abbey approaches the outdoors like a zealot and, in entertaining amounts of scathing rhetoric, slaps the hell out of anyone in disagreement. You cannot un-read Mr. Abbey. You’ll enjoy his work and, because of it, will love being in nature all the more.

Desert Solitaire

#4: Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

If for nothing else, Joseph Conrad is the master of descriptive language. You simply cannot go hiking after reading his work and not see things in a new and interesting way. Despite the depth of meaning he packs into relatively short stories, they are worth some light reading simply to attribute new value to the way the world naturally progresses. If you want to love what surrounds you in nature on a cerebral level, Conrad is key.

Heart of Darkness

#5: Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I recommend this for two reasons. One: the main character, Ishmael, is a true visionary and views his surroundings with an extremely involved and technical, but passive lens. This is important in the art of appreciating the outdoors. Two: the whole book focuses on the evils of encroaching upon the natural order of things. Melville writes to show you cannot overcome nature and that you want to exist in a perceptive plane. Melville is another king of description. Moby Dick is entertaining, it’s informative, it’s different. It will give you a new level of care for your environment while on trail.

Moby Dick

To sum it all up…

I know some of you will say you don’t have time to read these books. I disagree with you. In response, you are free to agree to disagree.

There are several other routes you can take, just like on trail. I find poetry is good for when I am short on time. Some poets who will help you achieve a similar feeling in less time are Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and T. S. Eliot.

Descriptive language helps us see the world in color. Food for thought!

Happy reading and happy trails.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 1st

    Thanks! I’m still thinking about what limited reading material I will take with me.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 1st

      No problem! Heart of darkness is short (about 60-70 pages, depending on the binding), but I cannot state enough how much I recommend The Prelude. You have to get the 1805 version as it is the best one. Norton’s edition is a little bulky but Oxford puts out a great version (it has a red cover) that is quite portable. I used to carry it wherever I went before I lent it out to someone.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Allison Gonzalez : Dec 2nd

    I read Desert Solitaire while in the desert this last spring and just couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with Abbey that spring.

    ~Allie

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 2nd

      I’m so happy to hear someone else is an Abbey fan! Have you read The Journey Home? I think it’s a little funnier but slightly less heartfelt. It is the kind of writing only Abbey could put out. Read it and let me know what you think if you haven’t!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Daddy Longlegs : Dec 3rd

    Great book selections. Have one for you as an aspiring AT thru hiker. (It’s particularly good for Maine as you will be walking thru it’s pages) “Arundel” by Kenneth Roberts. Read it during my thru hike and was thrilled to find the Kennebec river AT ferryman reading it too. Enjoy and Happy Trails,
    DDL

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 3rd

      Hey, thanks a lot! I will look it up right now. I’ve been wanting to find a good one I haven’t read yet for the trail.

      Paul

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Olivia : Dec 3rd

    Nice list! I’m planning on bringing a pocket sized copy of Song of Myself on my AT ‘21 hike.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 3rd

      That’s a good one too! I read it in college but would probably benefit from going over it again. I approve.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Lance A Goehring : Dec 4th

    Great list, Paul! Abbey’s on my list too (https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/turn-page-10-books-inspired-thru-hike/). I’ve read all his stuff.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 28th

      I am so sorry I haven’t replied to you. I actually meant to reply after reading your article, pulled it up for later reading, and then life got in the way and it is still up in my tabs. I will read it today and let you know what I think!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Heat Lightning : Dec 4th

    I read Desert Solitaire last winter and its a really good book. Sad to see that quite a few of the things that he predicted have become true over the last half century.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 4th

      It is sad. I think we have a massive population problem that is only going to keep getting worse and will need to be addressed at some point in the future. That being said, there are quite literally no good solutions for that so I don’t know what will happen. Land management and conservation are of the utmost importance in these “more” initial stages of overcrowding.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Rocketman : Dec 19th

        I’m not sure population is the problem. We Americans just have a dysfunctional approach to land use. Try this one (though it’s too heavy for the trail):

        This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West
        Book by Christopher Ketcham

        Reply
        • Avatar
          Paul Madigosky : Dec 28th

          I have heard of that book and have not yet read it. I will be interested to take a look at it. It doesn’t sound like I would want to read it on trail, you’re right, but I will add it to my book list and I will read it either before or after. I’m always looking for another facet of perspective.

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Michael Delp : Dec 5th

    I’d rather eat a booger than attempt a reading of Moby Dick. I hate Melville with a passion, otherwise this was a great article !

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 5th

      Haha! May I ask what led to your obviously adverse opinions of Melville? It’s just out of curiosity really. You seem very sure about that statement.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Rocketman : Dec 19th

    Thanks for not including A Walk In The Woods.

    Definitely Abbey over Stegner. Try some Tempest Williams too.

    Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is a must for all outdoors enthusiasts, but a paperback copy of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac would be great for daily reading on the trail.

    Of course, simple or trashy fiction can be great around camp too. And you can use the pages for toilet paper or kindling without guilt. Grisham, Stephen King, Lee Child, etc.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paul Madigosky : Dec 28th

      A Walk in the Woods was good, but I tend to be more interested in classical literature (although I suppose Abbey is not really considered classical). Besides, A Walk is rather overdone and I figured everyone planning an AT trip had already read it or watched the film.

      I will look into all of your recommendations. I’ve always wanted to read Silent Spring (my father has four 1st edition copies of it) and have just never gotten around to it. I’ll have to prioritize it better, I suppose.

      I appreciated your last comment and it made me chuckle. Sometimes lighthearted or easy reading is the best thing for low mental energy that goes along with heavy hiking days.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Paul Schulke : Dec 29th

    Try some Gary Snyder for Nature Poetry…

    Reply

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