In no particular order...
1) Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove (1985)
One of the most iconic sagas about the Old West, this Pulitzer Prize-winner follows the adventures of ex-rangers Gus and Call as they go on one last cattle drive. However, the book is more than just the story of a cattle drive; it’s homage to a fading frontier, true brotherhood, and the enduring cowboy spirit. If you only read one Western novel in your life, make it this one.
More must-reads by Larry McMurtry
• Leaving Cheyenne
• Zeke and Ned
2) Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses (1992)
In 1949, facing the pending sale of his grandfather’s ranch and an increasingly modernized country, 16-year-old John Grady Cole heads south of the border to pursue a more fulfilling life working on a Mexican cattle ranch. It’s a dream that, more often than not, is paid for in blood. McCarthy’s stark writing in this coming-of-age tale perfectly echoes the grim realities of life in the West.
More must-reads by Cormac McCarthy
• No Country for Old Men
• Blood Meridian
3) Zane Grey: Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
In this classic, full of adventure and romance, famed gunman Lassiter struggles to extract rancher Jane Withersteen from a controlling religious group. One of the first novels of the Western genre, Riders of the Purple Sage popularized the conventions and archetypes of Western literature: vivid landscape imagery, a lone gunman hero, and a clear distinction between good and evil.
More must-reads by Zane Grey
• The Valley of Wild Horses
• Light of the Western Stars
4) Elmer Kelton: The Time it Never Rained (1973)
In Texas in the 1950s, the greatest danger to ranchers wasn’t bandits, desperados, or cattle rustlers. Their biggest foe was drought. The struggles in this novel are all too real—a dying Western town, an unhelpful government, an unrelenting natural enemy—and Kelton paints so vivid a portrait that you can almost feel the sand in your eyes and the dust in your throat.
More must-reads by Elmer Kelton
• The Good Old Boys
• The Day the Cowboys Quit
5) Louis L’Amour: Hondo (1985)
Hondo is the epitome of a cowboy—a tough, squinty-eyed loner with an underlying gentleness—who comes upon a woman and her son living in hostile Indian Territory. Complications arise with a host of bad guys, but the story has as much romance as it does bloody battles. John Wayne claimed that Hondo was the best Western novel he had ever read, and if it’s good enough for the Duke…
More must-reads by Louis L’Amour
• How the West Was Won
• West of the Tularosa
6) Jack Schaeffer: Shane (1949)
In the summer of 1889, a stranger wearing all black rides into a small Wyoming town. “Call me Shane,” he famously says. Shane is trying to leave behind a checkered past and finds honest work with the Starrett family, but he’s drawn into a violent town feud against corrupt cattlemen. No matter what your intentions are, in the Wild West, sometimes violence is the only answer.
More must-reads by Jack Schaeffer:
• Monte Walsh
• The Plainsmen
7) Glendon Swarthout: The Shootist (1975)
A winner of the Spur Award, The Shootist explores the mindset of a terminally ill gunman navigating the vanishing frontier. In this gripping tale, John Bernard Books must face the most fearsome opponent of all, an opponent he cannot win against: death. In his final afternoon, Bernard commits one last courageous act to make something of his life and death.
Other must-reads by Glendon Swarthout:
• The Homesman
• The Sergeant’s Lady
8) Frank Dobie: The Longhorns (1941)
Perhaps even more so than the cowboy, stagecoach, or outlaw, it was the Texas Longhorn that constituted the fabric of the American frontier. In this fascinating biographical sketch, Dobie constructs the Old West through the history and legend of the Longhorn, the bedrock of America’s cattle industry. Truly, the story of the Longhorn is inextricable from the history of the West.
Other must-reads by Frank Dobie:
• Tales of Old Time Texas
• Cow People
9) Will James: Smoky the Cowhorse (1927)
This beloved children’s book (though cherished by all ages) follows the story of Smoky, as he’s called by cowboy Clint, from his birth on the range to his reputation as a killer to his ultimate salvation. James shows incredible insight to the lives of animals and Western characters, and the writing is charmingly colloquial.
Other must-reads by Will James:
• Lone Cowboy
• All in a Day’s Riding
10) Dorothy Johnson: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1949)
The Man who shot Liberty Valance is a short story that touches on the often-ignoble truth of the West’s enduring mythology. It is the story of a young and naïve greenhorn who achieves renown and respect on the back of a legend that is really a lie. In Johnson’s West, legend supersedes reality, and heroes are often cowards in disguise.
More must-reads by Dorothy Johnson
• The Bloody Bozeman
• Some Went West