This is a list of what I believe are the 10 best Western books ever written. They are numbered, but are in no particular order and are really a list of my favorites. If you haven’t read many Westerns, you can’t go wrong with anything in this list. Even if you don’t think it belongs in the Top 10, you will most likely still enjoy it.
Feel free to comment below to include others that you think I should include. I’d love to hear from you and love discovering new authors and books. I hope you enjoy my list:
1. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
There’s a reason Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove was made into a mini-series. Many story lines that include good guys, bad guys, fortunes made and lost, exciting adventures, friendships, false friendships and death. This is a story of people who make good and bad decisions. The bad ones sometimes result in catastrophic consequences. If you aren’t a fan of the Western genre and only read one in your whole life, this should be it.
Also, if you haven’t seen the Lonesome Dove mini series, you are missing out. It is exceptional as well.
2. True Grit – Charles Portis
True Grit is an American classic written by Charles Portis that holds its own against Mark Twain and other famous American authors. Most people who think of “True Grit” think of John Wayne or the most recent version by the Coen brothers. Even though those movies are decent, this book far surpasses them in every way. The main character is an “old spinster” who recounts her days in the old west circa 1875 as a 14 year old girl. She tells the story of her father’s murder and her search for justice.
Historically and regionally accurate with a laugh on almost every page.
The movie adaptations of True Grit are also excellent. The newest one by the Coen Brothers follows more closely to the book, but they are both excellent.
3. The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
The Shootist won the 1975 Spur Award for the best Western novel that year, but is easily considered one of the best ever written. Many people have observed that “this is more than just a Western” and that is so true. Believable plots and the characters themselves are deep and convincing.
The book is much more violent and hard-edged than the John Wayne film of the same name.
This book is brilliant and deserves to be read by every western lover.
4. Monte Walsh – Jack Shaefer
Monte Walsh, by Jack Schaefer was first published in 1963 and is a collection of stories of a young cowboy and how he becomes a cattleman. This isn’t his first classic as he is the same writer who penned Shane. The characterizations are real and the depiction of cowboy life is very realistic. Jack’s writing puts you right in the middle of stampedes, death, train wrecks, bar room fights and lost loves. Excellent read that you should not miss.
If you haven’t seen Monte Walsh starring Tom Selleck, it is also quite good. Tom does a great job playing a convincing and sympathetic cowboy.
5. Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Hondo was the first full-length novel written by Louis L’Amour and is considered his best work. Hondo is your strong and silent type, but has a soft inner core.
This novel is one of the most talked about western novels of all time. One of the reasons is because it has all of the classic conflicts:
- Man against nature,
- Man against himself
- and man against his enemies.
6. Centennial – James A. Michener
James A. Michener’s Centennial is a huge panoramic, epic story of the American west. Michener has penned many great novels, but this is probably his best. Based on a fictional town (Centennial, Colorado), but because of Michener’s exhaustive research of the old west, feels like a genuine piece of history. Centennial has a little bit of everything: adventure, action, history, mystery and romance.
Read this excellent book, then treat yourself to the excellent: Centennial: mini series. It is one of my favorite tv shows of all time!
7. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains
The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains was written by Owen Wister and first published in 1902. The novel was a huge best seller and received much-deserved critical praise. This is the book that established the story lines of the Old West we have grown to appreciate. It realistically portrays the life of a cowboy on the Western frontier. This nameless cowboy that can handle himself in all situations and is your classic cowboy character.
At it’s heart, the Virginian is a love story, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. It’s a good story, well told, with sophisticated subplots.
8. Shane – Jack Schaefer
Shane is Jack Schaefer’s first classic Western that was published in 1949. Set in the late 1880s, Shane is a gun-fighter moving through town who settles down and finds honest work only to find himself fighting for justice against corrupt cattlemen. It is a very inspiring story about a man who is who he is and a boy who becomes a man. This is truly a classic story that you don’t want to miss.
The Shane movie starring Alan Ladd and Gene Arthur was released in 1953 and still holds up today. Treat yourself to a western classic!
9. The Big Sky – A. B. Guthrie
Many call this an absolute masterpiece. Who am I to argue with that? The Big Sky is written in the Rocky Mountain fur trade era during its boom in 1820 – 1850. This book is about the true Wild West before roads, before the decline of the buffalo and before the decline of the Indians. The main character is a “mountain man” rather than a cowboy and who driven by freedom and adventure. This is a time when there were no towns or sherriffs. They were the first white men to interact with the Indians.
Very compelling stuff and not like any other book in this list.
10. Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
Riders of the Purple Sage is Zane Grey’s best work. This is not your typical Western story as it centers around a ranch that is owned by a woman on the Utah border, but is a classic nonetheless. It created quite the uproar with the Mormon church when it was first published because of the protagonists struggle with the Mormon powers in Utah. Full of adventure and romance, this is another classic.
11. The Time it Never Rained
This book centers on the lives of ranchers and farmers in 1950s Texas. This novel isn’t what we think of as a classic “western”, as there aren’t any cowboys or cattle rustlers. This is about a family in the west who struggle to survive.
Elmer Kelton is a seven time Spur Award winner and it shows. He really brings the period alive and writes in a thoroughly engaging style that makes you really feel for the characters and their lives. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this one as much as I did. I think you will enjoy it too.
If you are looking for Western movies, check out our list of the Top 40 Western Movies of All Time on Amazon now!