I’ve been asked a bit lately to recommend some good travel books (both on the blog but also by some local friends), man that’s a tough list to put together! I love to read but had to really wrack my brains to get a list of the better ones and why I really enjoyed them. These aren’t my favourite travel books (although some of them are truly fantastic) but I think these are all valuable travel books in different ways, be it as a companion on the road or an inspirational piece to get you moving in the first place. Here is a list of some of my top 10 recommended travel books.
1) Neither Here Nor there: Travels in Europe – Bill Bryson
How can you even talk about awesome travel books and not mention Bill Bryson? The man’s a legend of the walkabout written word and although he’s written a number of travel books, this one has to be one of his funniest. It does tend to polarize people’s opinions though, you either love his travel stuff or hate it; the haters do all seem to take themselves (and Bill) far too seriously in my opinion though. If you’re reading Bryson instead of a Lonely Planet guide, you’re barking up the wrong tree, please go to jail and do not collect $200; you missed the point.
It tells the story of Bill retracing his footsteps in travelling across Europe as a student, 20 years later. All written from Bill’s deeply satirical and hilarious perspective on the world. It’s undoubtedly in the category of easy reading, being light-hearted and funny. Don’t expect any real information though, this one’s all for the shits and giggles, of which there are many.
2) Walden – Henry David Thoreau
The spiritual bible to the simple living movement, this classic is really more in the realms of philosophy than travel but I’m including it anyway as Thoreau’s journey of introspection resulted in some of the same conclusions that I believe Long term travel sometimes can offer a person (although certainly not always – See: Why long-term travel is not a magic bullet), also it’s just a nice tale of getting away from an ordinary life and seeking novel adventure.
Walden has been an inspiration in reminding me that less is more. A philosophy that I do try to employ when I travel as well as in general life wherever I can. Given it was first published 161 years ago, it’s from a different age, yet many of the lessons Thoreau leaves you with are more than a little applicable to life in the 21st century.
There’s also not a small part of me that would dearly love to give something like Thoreau’s experiment a try on some level (or is it the 10-year-old boy scout who still occasionally inhabits my body talking?) Walden is the tale of the 26 months that Thoreau spent living alone in the woods largely self-sustained, what a dude.
‘Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth’ – Henry David Thoreau
Vagabonding – Rolf Potts
A classic in the wanderlust genre, these days, the term vagabonding has become synonymous with long-term travel and the nomadic lifestyle, a concept made more popular today by people like Potts or Tim Ferris. It wasn’t always the case though and Potts effectively coined the term and brought the concept of a nomadic lifestyle a step closer to the mainstream with the book. While it tends to read a little like a travel ‘self-help’ book (actually I think that’s how it may actually be sold) it does a pretty good job of inspiring the budding (or veteran) traveller to hit the road and get lost somewhere foreign.
While I’m not a huge fan of the self-help genre (what a load of crap, let’s be honest, just don’t be a dickhead), Vagabonding does an undeniably good job at making the feet itchy and offers an inspiring argument to ditch the mundane ‘normal’ life, hoist your trusty pack onto your shoulders and buy a one-way ticket. I still recommend the book to friends who have the desire to travel but can’t ever seem to take the first step.
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Good movie, better book. While the tale ends in tragedy, the journey that Christopher McCandless takes is an inspiring one. I totally understand the desire to get lost in the wilderness and reject society on some level, there’s absolutely a romance to the idea of heading into the wild and living alone for a time that I do find pretty appealing (in theory anyway.. ).
The story is a powerful reminder of the fragility and shortness of life, which, for me, always leads to the stoic idea of mindfulness and enjoying the limited time we have. A theme that I feel goes very much hand in hand with travel and the inevitable new experiences that go along with a new destination.
It’s inspiring, funny, tragic and ultimately an interesting and powerful journey following in the footsteps of a guy who never really felt like he fitted into normal life (something I’m sure most of us can relate to at some point). It’s a story about pushing the limits of what we each want out of life and it questions our place in society, both topics very worthy of some deep thought.
Miracle in the Andes – Nando Parrado
Another ‘not really a travel book’ that I’ve bent the rules to include as technically it is about a journey.. I guess.. but more because it’s an incredibly inspiring and powerful story about the human condition that all starts with a plane ride.
We’ve all heard about the incident; the plane that crashes in the Andes with a number of survivors, the cannibalism of the dead and the heroic trek to get help but what I found just as interesting was the personal journey that many of the survivors went through (see how I related it back to travel there? eh? eh?). Miracle in the Andes goes much further than Alive does into the psychological aspect of the survivor’s journey. There were some really fascinating insights into how the survivors reacted to their situation that again really makes you think about the day to day life that we each take for granted.
It’s a question that I think we each ask ourselves when we hear about any horrific situation like this.. how would I do in that situation if that were me? Could I eat a frozen body to survive and would the traumatic experience reinforce the opinions I hold about religion, death, life and the world or dramatically change them?
The Beach – Alex Garland
Ok, back on track with the ‘real’ awesome travel books! Average movie, much better book (as is so often the case)! Essentially, Lord of the Flies for Generation X, it’s the tale of a ‘utopian’ community on a hidden Thai island, which eventually under various pressures, fractures and descends into anarchy. It’s just a great backpacker themed romp, which starts with the familiar excitement, anticipation and eagerness any young backpacker experiences at the outset of any new and eagerly awaited journey and I think really captures much of the adventurous ‘spirit’ that many backpackers seem to embody while on the road, definitely worth a read.
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
This one will be on every man and his dog’s list of ‘Travel Books’ and for good reason really, it’s a bloody classic! Written in only 3 weeks, yep 3 weeks… it’s the story of Kerouac’s various journeys across America and the ups, downs and everything in between that occur along the way. There’s plenty of Jazz, drugs and adventure to go around.
It’s also a bit of a polarising novel being hailed as one of the most important English books ever written while also simultaneously being hung, get drawn and quartered by modern critics. It’s the type of book that gets assigned in English class which means that you’re either going to love it or hate it.
For anyone who’s ever had the romantic idea of just disappearing into the sunset, this is a good place to start. There’s just this honest romance with the freedom of the open road, sprinkled with generous amounts of late 50’s Americana and hippie-ness. Bare in mind that it is a product of it’s time (1957) so many of the concepts in the story might taste a bit funny today.
Round Ireland with a fridge – Tony Hawks
Ok, so when I first saw this title I knew that I just had to read it. It’s the type of novel that should be consumed with a 2 Guinness minimum, especially given it all starts with a drunken bet. The title says it all really; man get’s drunk, makes a 100-pound bet that involves circumnavigating (hitch hiking) Ireland with a bar fridge. Amazing.
It’s a story about travel and alcohol, a combination that goes so well together that we’ve all got at least one good drunken travel tale, even if we can’t brag about using a fridge as a travelling companion. I love Ireland and the people who come to Tony’s aid in the story just about sum the place up: hospitable, hilarious and always up for a good time.
Head to your nearest Irish pub, park your arse and grab a few pints of the good stuff while you read about the hilarious antics of the world’s only celebrity bar fridge. It’s a light read, it’s not going to set your literary world on fire, but you will have a good time, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what both life and travel are all about?
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Another classic travel novel that will probably crop up in every travel list out there, but for some good reasons. Originally written in Portuguese in 1988, apparently, it’s sold more than 65 million copies to date, making it just a tiny little bit of a success story.
Semi highjacked by the bane of my existence: the Self-help industry (why isn’t there a ‘common sense’ industry!), the underlying theme of the alchemist is essentially that when you really want to do something, it becomes possible and that it’s not beyond anyone’s power to follow their dreams. The book is still a powerful work wrapping the themes around the story of a young shepherd who travels from Spain to Egypt in search of treasure. Of course, it’s all about the journey itself and the treasure Santiago finds is not the treasure he was originally expecting.
It’s a classic tale of travel, discovery and following your dreams, can be a bit too preachy in places and taking the self-help bollocks aside it’s worth a read for sure.
Long Way Round – Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman + Robert Uhlig
If you haven’t seen the TV series about the authors’ epic motorbike journey, I’d highly recommend it. It involves motorbikes and travel, two of my favourite subjects. It’s the story of 2 mates journey around the world on their motorbikes, starting in the UK and ending in New York. Don’t know about you but riding around the world with Obi Wan Kenobi sounds like a really cool idea.. may the force be with you.
It’s not a Motorcycle Diaries rip off but rather it’s own story of travel and friendship. It’s all about the journey, the joy of the open road and having an adventure with your best friend.
Yes, it’s well planned, they have lot’s of money and support along the way but it’s still an awesome ride and if reading (or watching) this doesn’t inspire you to immediately want to drop everything in your life, buy a bike and ride off into the sunset I’m not sure we can be friends.