Before traveling, I always recommend travelers look beyond the Top 10 Lists or bucket list items and read books from another culture to better immerse yourself into the culture and traditions of that place. While guidebooks and travel blogs provide valuable insight into the practice aspects of travel, they often fail to capture the essence of a culture. Reading the local literature, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry, diving into the literary works of a country before visiting can offer an unparalleled understanding of its history, people, customs, and beliefs.
By exploring the pages written by authors deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, travelers can enrich their experiences and forge deeper connections with the places they visit. If you’re planning a trip to the U.S., immersing yourself in literary traditions such as explorations of culture and social classes in a vast and diverse country, self-reliance and the American Dream, and satire and cynicism, along with its history can provide valuable insights into its society, customs, and values.
Whether you’re an avid reader, or simply interested in learning about your journey before it begins, here is a curated list of books that will transport you to America’s past and present while enriching your visit with knowledge and a deeper appreciation for all you see and do.
If you want to bring your books on vacation with you, a Kindle is essential. With a Kindle Unlimited Subscription, you could get the majority of these titles at a much lower price than buying them individually.
Check out my list of U.S. Travel page to see more info on visiting America.
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On The Road– Jack Kerouac
Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s adventures with Neal Cassady, On the Road tells the story of two friends whose cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. Written with a mixture of sad-eyed naiveté and wild ambition and imbued with Kerouac’s love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz, On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.
The Great Gatsby– F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the Jazz Age on Long Island, the novel depicts narrator Nick Carraway’s interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s obsession to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby is widely considered to be a literary masterpiece and a contender for the title of the Great American Novel. Contemporary scholars emphasize the novel’s treatment of social class, inherited wealth compared to those who are self-made, race, environmentalism, and its cynical attitude towards the American dream.
The House on Mango Street– Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Told in a series of vignettes-sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous-Sandra Cisneros’ masterpiece is a classic story of childhood and self-discovery. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas– Hunter S. Thompson
This cult classic of gonzo journalism is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained, rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page. It is also the tale of a long weekend road trip that has gone down in the annals of American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken.
See also, our list of books set in Las Vegas
The Crucible– Arthur Miller
One of the true masterpieces of twentieth-century American theater, The Crucible brilliantly explores the threshold between individual guilt and mass hysteria, personal spite and collective evil. It is a play that is not only relentlessly suspenseful and vastly moving, but that compels readers to fathom their hearts and consciences in ways that only the greatest theatre can.
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Breakfast at Tiffany’s- Truman Capote
In this seductive, wistful masterpiece, Capote created a woman whose name has entered the American idiom and whose style is a part of the literary landscape—her poignancy, wit, and naïveté continue to charm.
It’s New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany’s… And nice girls don’t, except, of course, Holly Golightly. Pursued by Mafia gangsters and playboy millionaires, Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveler, a tease. She is irrepressibly ‘top banana in the shock department’, and one of the shining flowers of American fiction.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close– Jonathan Safron Foer
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell embarks on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts of an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey. With humor, tenderness, and awe, Jonathan Safran Foer confronts the traumas of our country’s difficult history.
Read Also: Best Books Set in New York City
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn– Betty Smith
From the moment she entered the world, Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff, for growing up in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn, New York demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit. Often scorned by neighbors for her family’s erratic and eccentric behavior―such as her father Johnny’s taste for alcohol and Aunt Sissy’s habit of marrying serially without the formality of divorce―no one, least of all Francie, could say that the Nolans’ life lacked drama. By turns overwhelming, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the Nolans’ daily experiences are raw with honestly and tenderly threaded with family connectedness.
Betty Smith has, in the pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, captured the joys of humble Williamsburg life―from “junk day” on Saturdays, when the children traded their weekly take for pennies, to the special excitement of holidays, bringing cause for celebration and revelry. Smith has created a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as deeply resonant moments of universal experience. Here is an American classic that “cuts right to the heart of life,” hails the New York Times. “If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you will deny yourself a rich experience.”
To Kill a Mockingbird– Harper Lee
One of the most cherished stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than forty million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture, and was voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.
The Joy Luck Club– Amy Tan
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.
With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin– Harriet Beecher Stowe
Having run up large debts, a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby faces the prospect of losing everything he owns. Though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, have a kindhearted and affectionate relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise money by selling two of his slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave trader. The slaves in question are Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children on the farm, and Harry, the young son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid Eliza. When Shelby tells his wife about his agreement with Haley, she is appalled because she has promised Eliza that Shelby would not sell her son.
The story follows Tom as he is introduced to a little girl who is angelic & the sweetest little thing anyone has ever seen. He shares his Christianity with her and ends up saving her life in an icy river. As the story unfolds, tragedy continues to follow this dear man and those he loves. He is bought and sold and ends up with another slave owner, who is much more cruel.
Abolishionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe clearly shows that the institution of slavery is incompatible with any proper ethical treatment of human beings. The book was was meant to rally the moral sentiments of whites against the horrors of slavery, and it succeeded, helping to make Uncle Tom the most enduring fictional slave.
However, the character of “Uncle Tom” has become synonymous with servility and self-hatred. Despite the novel as a whole being anti-slavery and pro-black, sections have been distorted over the nearly 2 centuries since it’s publication that have turned “Uncle Tom” into a slur. The above interview is an interesting look at how this came about.
Slaugherhouse Five– Hurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-Mark Twain
Mark Twain created the memorable characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn drawing from the experiences of boys he grew up with in Missouri. Set by the Mississippi River in the 1840’s, this tale is a follow-up to his original book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry takes off on a raft down the Mississippi with Jim, a slave seeking his freedom. They run into two con artists, the Duke and the King, as they drift southward, and Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer near the end of the book. The book exposes attitudes prevalent at the times, especially racism, and includes coarse language.
Beloved– Toni Morrison
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.
Combining the visionary power of legend with the unassailable truth of history, Morrison’s unforgettable novel is one of the great and enduring works of American literature.
Fight Club– Chuck Palahnuik
The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
Chuck Palahniuk showed himself to be his generation’s most visionary satirist in this, his first book. Fight Club’s estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret after-hours boxing matches in the basements of bars. There, two men fight “as long as they have to.” This is a gloriously original work that exposes the darkness at the core of our modern world.
Read Also: Our Collection of Book Lists
Into the Wild– Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild is a non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer that tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who abandons his possessions, gives away his entire $24,000 savings account, and roams West and Southwest U.S. on a quest like some of his heroes Jack London and John Muir before hitchhiking to Alaska to live in the wilderness. McCandless lived in the Alaskan wilderness for several months before dying of starvation. The book explores McCandless’s motivations for leaving his old life behind and his struggles to survive in the wilderness.
A Walk in the Woods-Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson introduces us to the history and ecology of the Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine, and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way – and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in). Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaing guide you’ll find with his dry wit, profound examinations, and in-depth information.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings– Maya Angelou
Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in Sacagen Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
Travels with Charley in Search of America- John Steinbeck
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck’s goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
1776– David McCullough
In this masterful book, David McCullough tells the intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence—when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper.
Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is a powerful drama written with extraordinary narrative vitality. It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.
Written as a companion work to his celebrated biography of John Adams, David McCullough’s 1776 is another landmark in the literature of American history.
Why It’s Important to Learn About Other Cultures
Exploring and understanding different cultures is a valuable aspect of personal growth and global awareness. Whether you are traveling to new places or a destination is not feasible, reading about other cultures can offer an introduction to a culture you’ll soon experience, or provide an enlightening alternative. There are three main reasons of why it’s important to learn about other cultures:
1. Promoting Cultural Understanding: Reading about other cultures allows us to gain insights into their traditions, customs, values, and ways of life. By exploring diverse perspectives through literature or non-fiction works, we develop empathy and understanding for people from different backgrounds. It helps break down stereotypes and fosters appreciation for the complexity and richness of human experiences.
2. Expanding Our Worldview: Through reading about other cultures, we expand our worldview beyond our immediate surroundings. Our own cultural lens often limits our understanding of the world; however, delving into literature from various regions lets us examine different historical events, social structures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs that shape societies across the globe.
3. Enhancing Empathy: Understanding the experiences of others cultivates empathy within ourselves. Literature provides a medium through which we can step into another person’s shoes and see life through their eyes – be it a coming-of-age story set in Japan or a memoir detailing life in Africa. Such stories help us relate to individuals who may have vastly different lives from ours but share universal emotions like joy, pain, love, or loss.
And there we have it, my list of books to read before visiting the U.S. While there is no way I could list every book that I think you should read, we would all be reading for eternity (maybe that’s not a bad thing), but this list is a great introduction to American culture, politics, and life through the eyes of writers and novelists from the country.
Are there any books I need to add to my list? Let me know so I can scope them out!
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**All Book descriptions come from Goodreads
Mackenzie Jervis is a writer and founder of the bookish travel blog A Wandering Scribbler. With a passion for travel, she has visited 65 countries and had the opportunity to live on 3 continents and in 6 U.S. States. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and has written about her travels for a variety of publications. When not writing, she is probably at the gym, exploring wherever she happens to be, or reading the next book on her list.
Are you ready for The U.S.?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options, see our resources page. Remember, you may need to fly within the country as many popular locations are hours if not days of driving apart.
- Find Transportation- If you’re driving, look into Rentalcars.com before arriving to find the best rates. Amtrak train services are also available to/from some major cities.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in the U.S. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Viator or Klook for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, or Yellowstone National Park.
- Stay Connected– If your phone’s data plan is going to be expensive, order an eSIM card before you go, or just head to any major store like Target, Walmart, etc. to find one in person.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists, or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About the U.S.: Learn about the U.S. with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, novels and books about the country, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.