Texas Living

The Quintessential Texas Book List

By Peter Simek 1.4.19

The earliest inhabitants of Texas etched their stories on the walls of caves or on rock outcroppings. Then the earliest European settlers arrived, developing a rich folklore tradition passed down through campfire sing-alongs. Since its earliest days, Texas tales have inspired some incredible storytelling. And it has since offered the world a rich literary tradition.

From novelists like Larry McMurtry to historians like S.C. Gwynne, Texas’ literary roots run deep in the American experience. From well-known classics to recently written gems, here are 20 books that epitomize Lone Star literature — and should be on every Texas bookworm’s shelf.


The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación, translated by Martin A. Favata and José B. Fernández: Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on Texas, and his evocative descriptions of his travels and hardship offer an essential document of Texas’ beginnings.


Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John A. Lomax: Lomax grew up on the Texas frontier listening to the songs the cowboys played along their journey up the trail. That inspired a life, recalled in this autobiography, spent collecting the essential songs, stories, and fragments of American folk culture.


Tales of Old-Time Texas, J. Frank Dobie: Twenty-eight tall tales gathered by the great Texas folklorist make up this unique addition to the state’s literary heritage.


With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, Américo Paredes: Sometimes a single song can capture the history of a culture. Here, Paredes retells the story of a Mexican ranch hand shot dead by a Texas sheriff, an event that inspired a 100-year history of border ballads.


Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, T.R. Fehrenbach: If you are looking for a single, essential volume on Texas history, nothing quite beats Fehrenbach’s monumental 1968 telling of the epic tale of Texas.


The Path to Power, Robert A. Caro: The first volume of Caro’s unparalleled biography of Lyndon B. Johnson traces his rise in Texas politics, and subsequently illustrates the political world of early 20th-century Texas like few other books.


Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry: McMurtry’s books could fill a list of essential Texas reading, but this towering tome that pays homage to the world of the West is perhaps the greatest Western novel ever written.


Scorpio Rising, R.G. Vliet: Vliet’s last novel blends two stories — one about displaced Westerners living in New England and another about the life of a ranch town in Texas at the turn of the century — to create a modern tragedy about love, life, and the passing of time.


Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa: Through essays and poems, Anzaldúa explores the idea of a borderland, a terrain that exists not so much as a political demarcation but as an organizing idea, a cultural force that shapes the lives and landscape around it.


Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, H.G. Bissinger: We all know the movie and the TV show, but Bissinger’s original book about the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa remains one of the great nonfiction accounts of what football means to Texans.


The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer: A trio of novellas set in a fictional state perfectly and wittily depict the political scene of mid-century Texas.


The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy: McCarthy may not be Texan, but his novels set around the Texas border evoke the mythic grandeur of the state in a way few other writers have achieved.


Goodbye to a River, John Graves: A simple canoe trip down the Brazos offers stirring, eternally relevant reflections on the history of the state, the nature of travel, and the meaning of life.


Brownsville: Stories, Oscar Casares: The unique culture of Texas’ borderlands is brought to life in this collection of stories by the award-winning author.


A Journey Through Texas, Frederick Law Olmsted: Before designing New York’s Central Park, Olmsted headed on a journey west and reported back with a magnificently realized portrait of Texas in its earliest days of settlement.


Waterloo, Karen Olsson: You could call it The Gay Place for Generation X. Olsson’s Austin-based political novel travels down a rabbit hole of legislative intrigue and through Austin’s famous world of slackers.


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, S.C. Gwynne: Both a history of the Comanches and the Texas settlers who eventually drove them off the land, Gwynne’s riveting retelling of the rise and fall of the fierce, feared, and fabled tribe examines what was gained and what was lost in the closing of the Western frontier.


Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, Jan Reid: There have been few politicians in Texas — and even fewer in the United States, for that matter — quite like the late Gov. Ann Richards. This biography draws from more than 100 interviews to create a fully realized portrait of the first feminist elected to high office in America.


The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan: Much ink has been spilt over the story of the Alamo, but few books capture the drama and meaning of the pivotal event like Harrigan’s fictional reimagining of the fateful battle.

Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir, Eddie Wilson and Jesse Sublett: The cosmic cowboys brought Texas folklore into the 20th century, and this raucous recounting of the life and times of the subculture’s headquarters is essential reading for any lover of Texas music.

After you’ve picked out your Texas tales, find some good reads for your little Texas bookworms here.

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