Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Top Ten Travel Books

Ah, Heaven! Book, books and more books (photo courtesy of www.philosophy.leeds.ac.uk)

As anyone who has read even a few of my posts has no doubt gleaned by now, I love to read. As a child, I would sit for hours on end with a stack of books, poring over anything that I could vaguely understand. As I have been told all my life by friends and family, when I read, the world around me disappears (not that I would notice). I don't hear anyone or anything or notice if the roof has collapsed around me, I just keep on reading. Suffice it to say that there is no hope for me by now; I'm an incurable addict. I am also a travel addict. Travel and food writing are my favorites; I especially love to read other travelers' accounts of their misadventures, having had so many of my own. A book that combines food, travel, adventure and humor is the Holy Grail, but books on travel philosophy, travel-related fiction and travel classics are also highly entertaining, whether I am on a long plane, bus or train ride or trying to get a quick travel fix before our next trip. It was extremely difficult to whittle down the list of my favorite books to just ten, but these are the books that had the most profound effect on me and, hopefully, a great start to your own travel reading addiction:


Cutting through the glacial ice near El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)


1) In Patagonia by Bruce ChatwinA travel classic, it's part anecdotal travel journal, part social commentary, part biography, part history. Chatwin's style was polished and highly descriptive, but informal. It's also an interesting retrospective about the social and political scene in Argentina and Patagonia specifically, right before the "Dirty War" of the late 1970s and early 1980s.        

2) Walden by Henry David Thoreau: another classic, Thoreau's treatise on living and surviving alone in the woods in New England (although he was actually only a few miles from civilization), is not specifically about travel, but rather about the philosophy of living off the grid, self-discovery, expanding your horizons, learning to be self-sufficient and living with less. In other words, he expresses the perfect travel philosophy.

3) The Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit: a short but wonderful book about the importance of letting go of control and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. For anyone who has felt nervous or fearful about leaving home to explore the world, this book could inspire you to take the leap.


First snowfall in the forests of Sequoia National Park, California (photo by Luis Bastardo)


4) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: another highly entertaining, hilarious travel book by Bryson, this journal details his attempts at hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail (not in the creepy Mark Sanford way; Bryson actually hikes). Although he didn't complete the full length of the 2,179 miles (3,507 km) trail, his attempt is valiant and interesting; he is the everyman that we can all relate to. Almost all of his books are incredibly interesting, but the descriptions of his travails along the way and the beauty of the scenery make this one of my favorites.

5) Full Circle by Michael Palin: the relaxed style of Palin's travel books reflect his general "come what may" attitude, openness and Pythonesque sense of humor. For me, the interest lies in the fact that his journeys are off the grid and original and his accounts include all the sordid details, not just the bright and shiny ones. He shares not only the exciting details of his trips, but the common laments of all serious travelers (really, have you ever met a traveler who is not obsessed with the action or, more likely, the inaction, of his or her bowels?) as well as his personal revelations. Whenever I read one of his books, I feel that I accompanied him on the trip. In this book, he documents his travels to the 18 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean.

6) Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days by Nellie Bly (pseudonym of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman): this book was a stunning discovery for me. Nellie Bly was a journalist famous for her exposes of abusive child labor and the horrible conditions inside mental institutions before the turn of the century. It is the seminal account of a 19th century female reporter (enough of a rarity in itself) of her trip around the world, a journey of  24,899-miles, in 72 days (a woman traveling alone in 1889 was unheard of) and how she beat the fictional travel time of Phileas Fogg of Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne fame. Quite an accomplishment in a time without commercial flights or the internet. Much to my surprise, it is an incredibly readable book. I was expecting one of those "women travelers of the heavy skirts" type of colonial journals, but Bly is as accessible today as she was in 1886; probably more so, since her ideas and style were centuries ahead of their time. Funny, interesting, enlightening, self-effacing and, especially for its time, monumental.


Slim lodging pickins' on the road in the remoter parts of the U.S. (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

7) Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least-Heat Moon (pseudonym of William Trogdon): when Heat-Moon's wife left him and he lost his job on the same day, he decided to hit the road and travel across America. His account of the people he meets is, at times, hilarious, at other times wrenching, but always fascinating. Some of the places he visits include Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona and Whynot, Mississippi. It's a story of a man on the road, but is less self-serving and more relatable than, for example, Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

8) Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China by Paul Theroux: incredibly well-researched, Theroux spent over a year talking to locals throughout China, riding the rails and exploring the countryside. According to Library Journal, he takes more than 40 trains "from the southern tropics to the wastelands of the Gobi in western Xinjiang to the dense metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing, and Canton", recording customs, social and political changes and his general impressions of travel in China. This book will either convince you to travel by train through China or make you never want to set foot on a train again.


Innocence abroad, Beijing, China (photo by Simone Cannon) 

9) Pass the Butterworms by Tim Cahill: the consummate adventure traveler, Cahill brings an adrenaline rush with a shot of humor to all of his outrageous stories. In various books, he capsizes his kayak in the ocean, finds himself stranded in a rock-climbing attempt, is chased through Mongolia by wild horsemen (who turn out to be only trying to give him a gift of yogurt), contracts an especially virulent strain of malaria and generally lives the kind of life that others can only fantasize about. There are also more somber stories. One of the most poignant and profoundly affecting chapters in this book is about the pointless murder of his friend's son by Amazonian tribesmen.


10) Her Fork in the Road: Women Celebrate Food and Travel (Travelers' Tales Guides) by Lisa Bach: a stunning and brilliant collection of food/travel essays by such luminaries as MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, Isabel Allende and Frances Mayes. With essays entitled "Alligators and Piranhas", "Tempted in Jakarta", "On Pleasures Oral", "Chocolate with Julia" and "Easter Nachos in Warsaw", how can you go wrong?

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