Jonathan Raban: one of our greatest writers on place

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Jonathan Raban (Photo by Julia Raban)

Jonathan Raban wrote about human landscapes rather than uninhabited ones, and the borderlands between what a place professes to be and what they are.

An Englishman who emigrated to Seattle at the age of 47, his status as an outsider gave him a unique perspective on America as the land of perpetual self-reinvention.

Many of his books involved water — from the coastal UK to the Mississippi and the Inside Passage — and all contain interior as well as physical journeys.

His final work was a posthumously published memoir about his 2011 stroke and his father’s Second World War service. He died at the age of 80 in January 2023.

I first encountered this brilliant and perceptive writer when I picked up Bad Land to prepare for my first magazine assignment to South Dakota, not knowing that it wasn’t about those Badlands at all.

Years later, the good people at Eland sent me review copies of the newly-reissued Coasting and Old Glory, inadvertently lighting a spark that burned through my bank account as I tracked down every Raban book I could find.

A writer of this magnitude couldn’t be encapsulated by just one guest, and so I’ve invited two.

Readers of Jonathan Raban will be familiar with his daughter Julia, who appeared in several of his books and is an excellent interpreter of his work. 

We’re joined by John Freeman, an executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf and editor of Raban’s last book Father and Son. John’s books include How to Read a Novelist, Dictionary of the Undoing, and two collections of poetry. His work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Paris Review, and The New York Times

We spoke about Jonathan Raban’s fascination with sailing, the emigrant experience and reading landscape.

These are the books we mentioned in the podcast:

We also mentioned:

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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