Books

TOP BOOKS ABOUT TRAVEL

If you are going to explore the world, you ought to explore travel books too.

You'll need a good book to read on the airplane, to add depth to your experiences, and to "transport" you when you are not actually on a trip.

Where to start?  Short-stories about travel are perfect for a quick, lively read and for those new to the genre.

I highly recommend the annual collections of articles, short stories, and chapters compiled by editors of "The Best American Travel Writing" series. For example:
To go an a full journey, not just "day trip" with a travel writer, below are my candidates for some of the best travel books. Good to read at least one book by Paul Theroux and one by Bill Bryson, deservedly two of the field's biggest names. Both are prolific writers, so I'll be more specific.
Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar is the perfect place to embark on your new Theroux tour. His first, most influential, and arguably best book recounts London to Tokyo by train. Theroux is never ever sentimental, but he shows more excitement here than he does in some later books.

Then, if you want to join Theroux on another journey, I recommend Dark Star Safari ― a dangerous trip and a provocative book that I commented on here ― or The Old Patagonian Express (Boston to Tierra Del Fuego).

Among his many other books, Theroux was least engaging and most cranky in The Kingdom by the Sea (circling the coast of Britain) and The Pillars of Hercules (circling the Mediterranean), but even his second-tier works are filled with remarkable writing, keen observations, and vivid anecdotes.


Bill Bryson
Both Theroux and Bryson describe the people and places they encounter without mercy ― but where Theroux slices the jugular, Bryson bashes the funny bone.

Start with Bryson in Australia (In a Sunburned Country), England (Notes from a Small Island), or the Appalachian trail (A Walk in the Woods). The only risk is that your constant chortling will irritate your neighbors in aisle 12. Yet Bryson still slips fascinating info into his comic shticks.

At the bottom of the Bryson oeuvre ― and he has many more books than I'm listing here ― I sadly have to put The Lost Continent where his travels around small-town America tiresomely and repetitively focus on easy targets for sarcasm.

Jan Morris

For a different tone turn to Jan Morris. Famous as a virtuoso wordsmith, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris is more sympathetic to the people she meets and and more enthusiastic about the places she visits. Her portraits of cities ― such as Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, Oxford, Sydney, Manhattan ― are renowned.
 

Some advise starting with her 1960 classic Venice, updated in 2008. But, for worldwide variety, I'll say begin with Journeys.

Other Modern Classics

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Chatwin's meandering book was my companion when I hiked hills, mountains, and glaciers in Patagonia. Its "cubist" style had shaken the travel book field ― but I didn't know that at the time. I just knew that it added other dimensions of history, culture, and humanity to my more modest trip decades later. I want to also read Songlines, his admired account of the Aussie outback.


A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Man against Himalayan mountain is the topic of both these books, but they're wildly different: Newby narrates a self-mocking account of newbies attempting a remote peak in Afghanistan. Krakauer unfolds an ultimately tragic Everest expedition with all its suspense, heroism, and stupidity.

Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer
Crazy cultural juxtapositions form the subtext of this wry report of Pico Iyer's experiences crisscrossing south and east Asia over the years, recounting Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. Himself a cross-cultural product, Iyer goes beyond humor to offer thoughtful reflections.

Other: Historical & Fictional Travel

My small "canon" above is drawn from relatively contemporary travel books.  I excluded historical works no matter how great. Any list of significant historical travel writing would have to include Herodotus (the first travel writer, 450 BC), Marco Polo of course, Captain James Cook, Alexis de Tocqueville (nice new translation), and Mark Twain.

Some famous "travel books" are fictional ― and I don't just mean the routine embellishments added by all travel writers. The fiction range is represented impressively by such works as Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Kerouac's On the Road, Garland's The Beach, Foster's A Passage to India, and Bowles' The Sheltering Sky.

When I was biking in Japan with plans to visit Kyoto for the cherry blossoms, I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha. The novel is not about travel but it's imbued with so much cultural and historical detail that the old town of Kyoto came alive for me when I arrived.

Likewise, I'm sure I'd never have read Orwell's strange Burmese Days otherwise but I grabbed it on my way to Yangon and the novel really enriched my experience of Burma.

Bottom line: Don't leave home without one or several good books. And if you haven't yet read a few of the top ones listed about, that's a good place to start.

E-Readers

I confess I still like to flip through a paper guidebook, but additional reading on a long trip can take half a suitcase.

If you have not yet acquired a streamlined Kindle, now is a good time. Prices are down and they're better than ever. If you have an old Kindle, it's time to upgrade!