What began as an exclusive travel narrative list has evolved with my interests and reading material.
Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel: This is my favorite book, the one that connects with me on the deepest level. It involves history, art, poetry, historic travelogues, and modern day experiences all woven together to explain concepts of travel not often covered by the travel writing genre. This is a book I will carry with me on every trip, regardless of the amount of room in my pack. Buy this. Read this. Know this book. Here’s my series on The Art of Travel with excerpts and anecdotes.
Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: This is word-jazz, a book that makes the classics list and calls for a straight-through reading session. This novel was more favorable to me when I read more pages in one sitting. His Mexican adventures got me going with great imagery and head-shaking antics. I’ll read it again in a couple years and hopefully sop up more. I admire Kerouac’s drive to find an honest and original form of expression, just like Van Gogh. For me, that’s what makes this book a classic.
Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing: Don George gives loads of information worthy of highlighting and bookmarking for those budding freelancers and travel writers who need to know the basics of the industry. With topics like “Finding & Focusing Your Story” and “Getting Published,” this book offers more direction for those who have stories to tell but don’t know how to make their skills marketable. Don also interviews prominent writers, editors and publishers of today for advice aimed at the new-comer. I’d suggest buying a copy, marking it up and holding onto it as your loyal reference. Here is my extended review on this book.
Edward Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad: Edward worked for airtreks.com for 15 years, booking round-the-world airplane travel and learning how to best travel the globe. This was my first and only real book that helped me figure out my RTW solo journey, and it cleared up so many queries I had.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: I’m tired of the travel narratives about divorcees finding themselves, but this is a book that could give you a better feel for all three destinations she visits: Italy, India, and Indonesia. Her spiritual quest in India was thought-provoking, and I really liked hearing about awesome pizza in Italy. And of course, I’m jealous of her success (though nauseated by the movie).
Dean Cycon’s Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee: I’m increasingly developing a taste for travel essays, snippets of time encountering other cultures and experiencing adventures without being ultimately tied to a narrative thread. Dean tackles this type of writing well, hopping from Africa to the Americas to Asia telling the bitter truths about the origins of daily jolt. This book will make you think much more about global commerce and your dependence on communities across the globe (and their dependence on your awareness). Dean is the founder of Deans Beans and a storyteller with a fine ear for facts and conversation. Here is my extended review of this book.
Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle: An intense but enlightening study of American culture and why it’s going to (gulp) doody. Reliant on our surreal entertainment and sensationalist media, we have lost the capacity for complexity and replaced it with an inclination for self-delusion. What is produced for us is produced for the lowest common denominator. This read will scare you as an American…and possibly affirm what you’ve been thinking as a non-American. There’s a little sense of hope at the conclusion but not much.
Frances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany: From the writer of Under the Tuscan Sun, this book talks a lot about…flowers. I read this while at a Tuscan villa, and I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it if this wasn’t where I was. I hate putting books down without finishing them, but I couldn’t stand reading more about different species of flowers. Good, though, if you’re into cooking, gardening, and Italy.
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Bryson’s curiosity for the intimidating footpath near his home in New Hampshire leads him to its southern-most mouth, alongside former travel friend Stephen Katz. Together – both ill-prepared and facing a steep physical learning curve – they begin the Appalachian Trail with the goal of measuring its entirety with their hiking boots, one pair fresh out of the box. Similar to the writing style of Jon Krakauer, Bryson creates an experience that allows for human connectivity with his personal narrative while also providing a well-researched background that leaves the reader more knowledgeable than prior to cracking its cover. This is a story well-documented in the moment and marinated long after to reach its maturity in concept. Read my extended review on this book.
Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad: This is another divorcee-finding-her-way book, but I actually really enjoyed it. I admire the way she travels and actually thought about becoming a children’s book writer just because it seems to pay the nomad’s bills nicely! I especially like her experiences in Central America and living with a royal family in Bali.
Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy: A biographical novel about Michelangelo and the rise of his genius with a chisel, paint brush, you name it. If you’re interested in Rome, the papacy, art, Florence, or Michelangelo, you will find it an awesome read. This is a thick one to travel with, so I would recommend reading while stationary.
Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes: A personal account of the Andes plane crash and the struggles the Uruguayan rugby team endured to get rescued. A fast and emotional read.
Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: If you’re from small-town America, this is hilariously brutal. If you’re from urban America, don’t you dare laugh. If you’re hoping to visit the States and take the quintessential road trip cross-country, use this as your local insight into every seeming contradiction and absurdity. Here’s my extended review of this book.
Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries: I may have missed the point on this one, but I did not enjoy this classic travel account by Che Guevara. It took me weeks to finish this tiny book because the interest didn’t seem to be there. If it didn’t have such a reputation, I don’t think I would have tried too hard. Near the end, his journal entries lack energy and sound something like, “On Tuesday, we fixed the bike, rode to (insert city here), and nothing much happened.”
Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma: I read this book while sprawled in a $2 hotel room in Varanasi, crippled by a stomach bug soon to be diagnosed as Giardia, so thinking back to my memories of this book is a little unsavory. However, this book reveals the conceptual foundations behind such books as 1984 and Animal Farm and gives the reader some real insight to the realities of Burma and its sickening oppression.
Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram: This book is going to be a blockbuster movie starring Johnny Depp in the coming years. It is the most outstanding tale of India’s underbelly and her ever-present beauty, told by the man whose life the novel details. I don’t want to ruin the storyline one bit for interested readers, but all I can say is that you’ll feel incredibly happy you read the beast afterwards. I wish I could erase my memory and read it again for the first time.
Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: Paul Farmer doesn’t seem like the guy you’d like to have a casual chat with on a plane, but that’s because he can think of nothing else but his passion for helping those who cannot afford or reach adequate medical advice get the best treatment. This man’s made massive progress with communicable and terminal diseases in third-world regions of the World. Good book for the altruistically minded.
Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild: Krakauer is a favorite, a great perspective describing unique adventure and travel stories. And his immaculate attention to detail when storytelling present his books as well-informed and quality reads. Into the Wild is about a 24 year-old Emory graduate who gives his savings to charity and takes off on a two year journey of tramping and eventually sustaining himself amidst the Alaskan wilderness, a challenge from which he unfortunately didn’t walk away. Enjoy my extended book review here.
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi: I know this one doesn’t exactly fall into the travel narrative genre, but wow is it a good read! The story of survival at sea with a (potentially) very, VERY hostile companion.
Eric Hansen’s The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: This book is a collection of nine essays that span continents and subjects. In one story, Eric Hansen tells the story of how he wanted to try a mind-altering drink called kava in Vanuatu and succeeds; a crazy explanation follows. Another tale covers his attempt to smuggle Maldive fish from the islands to Sri Lanka when he learns their cultural twist on courting and gets hepatitis. I wouldn’t kick this book off my bed stand. It’s an amusing read.
Timothy Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek: Though not a travel narrative, this book is a hybrid self-help, business, and travel guide to lifestyle design that focuses on automated income. Timothy truly offers a lot of great ideas that go against the conventions of today’s older business mentality and makes it darn near possible to sidestep the deferred life plan, which I despise. Reading this book will get you all jazzed up and inspired to create your own product and make others run the company while you merely own it and rake up the profits for your mini-retirements around the globe. I really don’t think people should put off their lives anymore. Neither does Tim.
Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea: At first you think you know what this novel is about, and then it gets good. A really great story about a guy who cares about good education for people who do not have it readily available…say in the Karakorum Mountains of Pakistan. I read this book while trekking near the Line of Control, and that just brought a whole new level of intensity to it. I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in mountaineering, Central Asia, education, or Islam. (UPDATE: it may be mostly fiction. Here’s the controversy.)
Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country: Never have I been more frightened to step onto a continent as I was when I got to Australia, thanks to the first chapter in this hilarious narrative. The book turned out to be a lovely telling of every nook of Oz. Bill Bryson is a travel narrative front-runner for a reason: Midwestern charm and humor.
Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009: If you’ve got travel on the mind and want to jump into the minds of 35 women travelers for a taste of their adventures, this is a great book for you – a pupu platter, if you will, of travel narratives from the female perspective. I’m not huge on differentiating between male and female tales, because I like to think about travel as a unifying topic; however, it was much easier for me to relate to these stories thanks to the gender match. Though I’m unsure of whether I’d pay full price for this kind of book, it certainly served a great purpose for me there on the beach in Fiji. I wanted to remove my mind from its reality and just enjoy a little time in the lives of others. Check out my book review.
Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala: Andrew Pham takes his bike across Vietnam to experience his birth country after living in America for 20 years. He’s got the kind of travel experiences and back story that would make any travel writer envious. Wonderful if you’re interested in cycling, Vietnam, Southeast Asia, or travel narratives in general. Makes you think about your homeland.
Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips is a thick and visual one from National Geographic Traveler that enables dreamers to dream. With brief descriptions of destinations and experiences, coupled with their ever-fantastic photography, it’s hard not to pine for travel every time you open this book. If you can’t swing $40 to purchase this eye candy, then stay tuned every month for my series on Journeys of a Lifetime, which highlights the incredible trips one could take in that current month.
Brian Winter’s Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina: With my current job, these kinds of books are really helpful for combining narrative with historical information. It’s not always the best tactic to assimilate by reading the perspectives of other expats or Americans in your current destination, but Winter’s job as a reporter for Reuter’s during his time in Buenos Aires resulted in a narrative with more substance than the average travel book. His focus on the Tango is an interesting lens into the Argentine history and identity, and it’s certainly sexier than turning all attention to the fiscal crisis that occurred during his tenure in 2001. I wasn’t inspired enough to write a full review, but it was a worthwhile read for understanding the context in which BsAs functions today.
David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: This is no travel narrative taking place in the megalopolis of Mexico City; it’s better than that. David works off of twenty years of experience as an expat in Mexico’s capital, working as a journalist and, therefore, a well-informed observer of society. His perspectives on the good and the bad, disseminating irrational fears (while still establishing there somewhat legitimate nature), give the city a well-balanced feel akin to most cities we eventually find compelling and worth spending time in. I read this prior to departing for Mexico City and felt I had gained a solid background off of which to function. Review, with juxtaposed personal opinions, can be found here.
I always take recommendations. Contact me.