Good Reading: My Favorite Books about the Catskills

June 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

There is a wealth of information about the Catskills, with new books being released every year. There are books on history, railroads, bluestone, famous national and regional painters, travel guides for nearly every activity and much more. Having read a lot, if not most, of the books about the region, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to narrow down the lengthy list of books to my favorites. If someone were to say to me: “I am not familiar with the Catskills. Which books should I read first?”; then these are my choices.


The Catskills by T. Morris Longstreth (1886-1975). This is perhaps my favorite book about the Catskills. The travelogue follows the author as he journeys through the Catskill Mountains in 1918. Longstreth takes you to Overlook Mountain, Stony Clove, Phoenicia, Hunter, Slide Mountain, Kaaterskill Falls, the Ashokan Reservoir, Mount Utsayantha and many more places. Along the way Longstreth fishes the mountain streams, sleeps under the stars, lodges at local boarding houses and dairy farms, tramps the backroads, talks to the people and witnesses the many majesties of nature. The book has an easy flow, making the pages turn by effortlessly. Interspersed throughout the book are great pieces of advice which, taken by themselves, are worth the read.


Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. No literary list about the best of Catskills related books can be complete without including the timeless Rip Van Winkle, published in 1819 to international acclaim. Set in the Catskills, an amiable Rip wanders off in the woods with his dog Wolf to escape his wife’s nagging and to avert “all kinds of profitable labor” only to encounter a silent group of short, bearded men playing nine-pins. After drinking some of their liquor he falls asleep for twenty years. Upon waking, he returns to his village to learn that his wife has died, the American Revolution has occurred and that he must face the fact that many of his former friends have either died, moved on or simply do not recognize him. The short story is an American classic. Today, you can’t turn anywhere in the Catskills region without seeing a reference to the affable Rip Van Winkle.


The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock by Alf Evers. The Catskills, the result of over eight years of detailed research, is the most authoritative book on Catskills history ever published. Although, at 736 pages it is long and will take you several, if not many, sittings to complete, it is worth the effort to gain an in-depth perspective of the region. It covers a lot of ground, with a thoroughness and breadth that you won’t find in any other regional history. Alf Evers (1905-2004) began his career as a children’s writer, authoring over 50 books with his wife Helen. After their divorce he turned his attention to history, publishing numerous newspaper articles and several other authoritative books including Woodstock: History of an American Town; Kingston: City on the Hudson; and In Catskill Country: Collected Essays on Mountain History, Life and Lore. Alf also served as the Woodstock town historian.


The Catskill Mountain House by Roland Van Zandt. Once upon a time, the Catskill Mountain House was among the most famous hotels in the United States, if not the world. Van Zandt brilliantly takes you through the hotel’s history, the people, and its lasting influence on the region. Van Zandt also provides insightful historical context that helps the reader understand the popularity of the Catskills in popular culture and the public’s imagination. Any person looking to learn more about the Catskills region should certainly seek out this book. Roland Van Zandt served as director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. The Catskill Mountain House has long been out of print, but you can often pick up a copy online.


My Side of the Mountain. Although I have not read this book in many, many years it was still very easy for me to include it on the list of my favorite Catskills books. This is one of the books from my childhood that I remember the most. I read, and re-read, this book so many times that it is a wonder that the binding didn’t fall off. I already look forward to sharing this story with my son when he gets older. I can only hope that he enjoys it as much as I did when I was a kid. 


The fictional story follows a young Sam Gribley who, tired of his family’s crowded New York City apartment, runs away from home to his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the town of Delhi in Delaware County. Sam begins a new life by building a home in a carved out tree and learning to live off the land. In the process, Sam learns about nature, himself and survival in this fictional tale of courage and determination. My Side of the Mountain was written in 1959 by Jean Craighead George. It won the Newbury Award  and several other honors for young adult fiction books, in addition to being named to the “Top 100 Books for Children” list by the National Education Association. It is a timeless classic.


In the Catskills: Selections from the Writings of John Burroughs  This is a collection of eight essays about the author’s home region, and includes an essay called “The Heart of the Southern Catskills” that details his climb of Slide Mountain, the tallest mountain in the Catskills.


John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a noted Catskills and American naturalist, writer and conservationist. Burroughs’ most popular writings became generally known as the nature essay. The nature essay relied on Burroughs’ astute observation of his natural surroundings. He took long walks in the woods, collected plant and animal specimens and read voraciously about nature. He would often write not about faraway places that few readers would ever see but about his immediate surroundings. Subjects would include flowers, trees, birds, country living, open fields, barns and barnyards and farm animals. He would write about long hiking trips and fly-fishing. Readers could individually relate to the subjects and his essays resonated with wide audiences.


Burroughs would author some 27 books, many of them collections of articles and essays that appeared in the most popular magazines of the day. His first book (and his big break), Wake Robin in 1871, was an early collection of his published nature essays. Although Burroughs traveled and wrote widely he was always most associated with the Catskills region. His fame led to friendships with some of the country’s most influential citizens such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Walt Whitman, about whom he would write several biographies.    


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