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Who among us hasn’t wanted to retreat to a weird, small cabin in the woods…

Okay not THAT kind of cabin in the woods. We were thinking something slightly less demonic. Now that summer is SADLY winding down, and the heat will soon take a hike, we’re thinking you should take a hike too. It’s time to head off to some mountain-type place where the hills are high, the valleys are low, the campfires are hot and the tents are pitched (meh). And while we understand you are perfectly content with your own glorious, brilliant thoughts, we still wanted to give you some book suggestions to pass the time. We asked our favorite DC literary pros to tell us some of their favorite books to read while camping, or resting while on a hike, or while lying on your back in an open field…you know…outside.

#UnitedOutside content has been done in collaboration with our friends at REI

DC Public Library

The Naturalist : Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde

This highly readable biography of our 26th president comes at an opportune time as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service. Lunde, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, chronicles Roosevelt’s early life and his life-changing epic family trips to Europe and Africa which reinforced and forged his love of the natural world and it’s creatures. Certainly one of our more engaging presidents and a Renaissance man for his time as well as ours. – Shawn McDermott, Librarian at Shaw Library

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Deep South : Four Season on Back Roads by Paul Theroux

Renowned travel writer Theroux trades his wanderlust from ways afar to places closer to home, specifically the deep rural south. Traveling over four seasons Theroux provides a fascinating portrait of this part of our country by attending gun shows, church services and interviewing wide cross sections of its inhabitants many of them disenfranchised. A series of short interlinked vignettes make for perfect reading around the campfire. You’ll see the south in a whole new light. – Shawn McDermott, Librarian at Shaw Library

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A Thousand Miles From Nowhere by John Gregory Brown

Piggybacking off Theroux’s Deep South I thought I’d recommend John Gregory Brown’s latest novel. Any book billed to be in the literary tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy has my attention. Set in Virginia, the protagonist Henry Garrett has recently escaped New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches. Emerging from loss, both physical and emotional, Garrett finds himself hunkered down in a motel and soon involved in a tragedy. A number of characters, and the healing power of art, help him navigate his way back to redemption. – Shawn McDermott, Librarian at Shaw Library
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Politics & Prose

We Are All Stardust by Stefan Klein & others

Camping is a time for pondering the big, existential questions. When you’re lying on your back, looking at the stars and thinking “what’s it all about?”, you need a book with ideas as grandiose as your own. Happily, Stefan Klein did just that when sat down with 18 of the world’s leading scientists and asked about what drives them, and what they still hope to discover. Featuring cosmologist Martin Rees, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and primatologist Jane Goodall, inspiration and contemplation abounds in We Are All Stardust. – Jon Purves

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Station Eleven by Emily S. John Mandel

Sure, camping’s all fun and games now, but the way things are going, you might find that you need to live in that tent rather longer than you anticipated. That’s where the gripping post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven comes in. The protagonist, Kirsten Rayminde, is an artist moving between settlements in a world devastated by a flu pandemic, dedicated to keeping the spark of art alive. A lyrical and beautifully-written book, read this in a tent and you’re no longer an office-worker escaping D.C. traffic for a long weekend, you’re a heroic nomadic survivor. – Jon Purves

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On Trails by Robert Moor

Even in the wilderness, if you’re camping, the chances are you got there following some kind of trail. How and why trails came to be, or what they symbolize, aren’t something we really think about–unless you’re Robert Moor. He came to consider them while hiking the Appalachian trail, from the smallest ant trail to the busiest superhighway. How do they form? Why do some get busier and busier and others… trail off (sorry)? Why are some inclined to find a path and stick to it, while others seek alternative routes? On Trails is a delightfully philosophical read for anyone who loves to wonder as they wander. – Jon Purves

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

While you’re out romping through all that stunning nature, just remember to look after it and appreciate that it exists. Barkskins is the latest epic from Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx, and at heart it’s a story about the destruction of the world’s forests. It begins with two French woodcutters arriving in Canada in the late 17th century, and follows them, and then their descendants, around the world as they take advantage of a seemingly limitless resource. Meanwhile, characters in the modern world must grapple with the prospect of ecological devastation. Sobering? Perhaps, but we need these stories to remind us not to take the world for granted. – Jon Purves

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The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

It’s easy to look up and around on a camping trip, but The Forest Unseen is a great reminder to look down as well. Haskell, a biologist, visited the same one-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest repeatedly for a year. Each day brings a new and fascinating discovery, from the flash of a firefly to the blossom of spring flowers, all described and explained by a scientist with poetry in his veins. Reading this evokes the same sense of curiosity and wonder you felt poking around in the woods as kid, and you’ll go away having learned something about the remarkable complexity of the forest. – Jon Purves     

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Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

You’ve finally got some peace and quiet, so now’s the time to settle down with something meaningful and contemplative. Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra, comes from one of Chile’s most exciting new writers. In this new kind of reading experience, virtuoso “language exercises” and short narrative passages are followed by multiple choice questions to answer (if indeed you can answer some of what’s asked of you). Try as I might, this striking piece of writing is too original in concept to fully explain in one paragraph, but grab a pencil, give it a go, and you’ll be glad you did. – Jon Purves

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Upshur Street Books

Gentleman of the Road by Michael Chabon

The first novel that came to mind was Gentleman of the Road by Michael Chabon, a fun, swashbuckling tale with rich language that takes place in the Caucasus Mountains in AD 950 (though it could be anywhere and anywhen). It follows two irresistibly charming, odd-couple rogues that survive on their wits and tricks. Their hijinks make for the perfect adventure story for a trip to the wild. Plus it has pictures! – Anna Thorn

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Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv

For a nonfiction pic, you should try Richard Louv’s new book (author of Last Child in the Woods), Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (N for nature, naturally). It’s a super practical and thoughtful book that’s full of activities for kids and adults, advice, and resources to prevent our increasing alienation from the natural world. This one will make you feel especially good about getting out of the city for some Vitamin N. – Anna Thorn

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Books for grilling! by various

Before heading to the woods, I recommend checking out one of the fantastic grilling books that have come out recently. We recommend Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecuing and Grilling by Meathead Goldwyn; Around the Fire by Denton and Quiñónez Denton (this one will really class up your grilling game); or Slow Fires by Justin Smillie. They’ll ensure you’re well-fed as you read around the fire. – Anna Thorn

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The Vorrh by B. Catling

And finally, if you feel like raising some goosebumps and turning the forest into a slightly more sinister place, bring The Vorrhby B. Catling, a historical fantasy in which the hero undertakes a quest into the heart of The Vorrh, a great primal forest and a character in its own right. The book takes place post-World War I and explores everything from colonialism to mythology to wildness.  – Anna Thorn

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 BYT Picks

Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana & L. Kelly

One skill you cannot live without when camping is really knowing how to tie a good knot, and who was better at tying knots than Dennis Rader, more commonly known as BTK. For thirty-one years Rader kept the community of Witchita, Kansas living in terror. Eventually his own hubris was his demise but the journey to that day was violent. Go deep into the mind of one of this country’s most fascinating serial killers while you’re alone…in the woods…at night. – Jenn Tisdale

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Short story collections are the best kind of books to bring into the great outdoors. They’re never boring. If you don’t like the story you’re reading, you can just move onto the next one, and if you’re around a campfire with some friends, their length makes them much more enjoyable to read out loud. Now, King is the best when it comes to the scary short stories. You could easily choose any of his collections and be absolutely set. I’m recommending Everything’s Eventual not because it’s my favorite (even though it is), but because it contains the story The Man In The Black Suit. I don’t want to spoil anything about the story, but lets just say it all takes place in a wooded area, it has a dark fairy tale like quality, and it’s one of those stories that sticks with you for many years. If this doesn’t make your companions inch closer and closer to the fire in fear, then you must have fucked up the delivery, because King is spot on. -Kaylee Dugan


Various books by Various Authors!

Lord of the Flies, Cast Away, and Heart of Darkness.


When I was a camp counselor, a lot of us read Harry Potter, because that’s what was the most popular at the time. Before that, I briefly remember Lord of the Rings being somewhat popular with the older kids. Personally, I like anything that is compelling, without being too elaborate. A good murder mystery set in an urban area will help remind me why I’ve just escaped to the wild. Ian Rankin, Steig Larsson, or George Pelecanos would do nicely. Agatha Christie if I’m feeling fancy. I’ll leave the wide and sweeping adventure epics for reading at home, when I’m not on an adventure of my own.

Oh, except for Beowulf. Seamus Heaney’s edition is great, but the Dover Thrift Edition has an equally great translation from the Old English text. Come to think of it, any edition will do just fine. – Jonny Grave
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