No one likes a well thought out reading list more than I do. They obsess me, it’s true. But they also serve to focus my efforts, reveal themes and dialogues that pass from author to author, and expose me to new writers I might not otherwise have read.
I’m just a few books away from completing the Modern Library’s Top 100 Books of the 20th Century—a project I’ve been chipping away at off and on for 5 years–and it got me thinking about my own area of expertise: travel literature.
I took a couple hours today to browse through my bookshelves and come up with my own Road Wisdom Top 10 Travel Books. Something to keep you busy this summer as you laze on the beach or sneak reading breaks at work.
1) Prospero’s Cell – Lawrence Durrell
Born in colonial India in the foothills of the Himalayas but sent to boarding school in England, Lawrence Durrell hated the buttoned-up lifestyle of the north. When his father died he saw an opportunity to escape. Somehow, by some incredible art of persuasion, he convinced his mother to pack up their entire family—four children, of whom he was the eldest—and move them all to the Greek island of Corfu.
They lived a crazy island life with eccentric locals and writers dropping by—people like Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor—and during all those years Durrell plugged away in a little stone house on the side of a mountain and taught himself to write. Prospero’s Cell is the story of those years.
When you’ve finished this, read Reflections on a Marine Venus and Bitter Lemons, Durrell’s other island books. And then read everything else he’s written. Everything.
2) The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux
One dark day in the early 1970’s, at a loss for what to write next, novelist Paul Theroux boarded a train in London and set out on the longest continuous rail journey he could map. The story of his trip from Britain through Europe to India and Sri Lanka, across Southeast Asia, up Japan, and full circle back to England on the Trans-Siberian Express became an immediate best seller and catapulted the author into the literary big leagues.
That first book was pivotal because it introduced extensive dialogue to a genre that had always tended towards the personal diary, pontification, and self-aggrandizement. Theroux’s gift for allowing strange local characters to reveal a place in their own words, coupled with a keen eye for the telling observation, has made him arguably our greatest living travel writer. Start here, and read everything he has written.
3) The Odyssey – Homer
I consider The Odyssey to be the greatest traveler’s tale ever told. The origins of the story are fiercely debated by scholars, but it’s generally attributed to the blind poet Homer and is a written record (circa 8th century BC) of what was initially oral tradition.
The poem tells the story of the crafty general Odysseus and his journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan War. According to the book it took him 10 years to get home—though 7 of those years were spent indulging every possible island vice with the nymph Calypso, so he can be forgiven for taking the roundabout route…
It’s a gripping tale filled with angry gods, brazen nymphs, Cyclops and shipwrecks, and it’s as exciting today as it was when monsters inhabited the edge of every parchment map. Read it immediately—and then flip back to the first page and read it again.
4) The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Worst Journey is a memoir by one of the survivors of Robert Scott’s 1910-1913 Antarctic Expedition, and it’s probably the greatest piece of adventure literature I’ve ever read. It’s a giant brick of a book, but I never once found it slow. The hardships these men endured are difficult to believe–the author’s midwinter expedition to collect eggs from the Emperor penguin’s breeding grounds was an epic of survival in itself, with temperatures so low it took the men half an hour each night to work their way in to their frozen sleeping bags, thawing them bit by bit with their failing body heat. The entire story is told in such an underrated way, and so matter of fact. It’s a tale of true heroism and an up close look at an age of exploration that’s long since vanished.
Upon his return to England 3 years later, with most of his companions dead and Robert Scott frozen to death along with several other members of the South Pole party, Cherry-Garrard took those hard-won eggs he had gathered at such cost on his scarcely believable winter ordeal, and he donated them to the British Museum. They were left in a storeroom drawer unstudied, and not a single person thanked him for bringing them.
The closing pages of the book contain one of my favourite passages in all of travel literature:
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man, you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys, you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.“
5) Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger
Wilfred Thesiger was the last Victorian Age explorer, a man born after his time. He came of age during the era of the steam train, and he watched with disgust as the automobile and the airplane changed the world. He felt least at home in his own culture and with his own kind, and he deeply resented what he saw as western civilization’s unstoppable steamrolling of the diversity and colour of the earth’s peoples.
Arabian Sands tells the story of Thesiger’s explorations of the Empty Quarter. He crossed this fiercest of sand deserts twice by camel with Beduin tribesmen in what was the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel.
Of traveling in the desert, he wrote, “I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills.” Thesiger died in 2003 at the age of 93. His book is a classic of the travel writing genre, and a glimpse into our recently vanished past.
6) Libyan Sands – Ralph Bagnold
Ralph Bagnold began to explore the deserts of Egypt (referred to as the Libyan Desert) while stationed in Cairo in the 1920’s and 30’s. It was there that he and a small group of friends first took Model ‘T’ Fords out into the sands—something everyone agreed was impossible given the difficulties of navigating vast dune seas. Over the course of their expeditions they pioneered techniques that are used by desert drivers even today, opening previously unexplored territory and making the first recorded east-west crossing of the Libyan Desert in 1932.
During the Second World War, Bagnold went on to form the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), carrying out small mobile hit and run attacks in the deepest parts of the Sahara, using the skills they’d built on expedition. When the war ended he went into his lab and he wrote The Physics of Blown Sand, which is still the main reference in the field.
But Bagnold wasn’t just a pioneer of desert driving techniques and a scientist. Libyan Sands, the book he wrote about his early driving expeditions, is a beautifully observed book filled with eloquent prose; a true classic of desert travel writing. It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the effort to track it down.
7) The Impossible Journey – Michael Asher
Talk about a honeymoon to remember! Immediately following their marriage in London, Michael Asher and his wife Marianetta flew to Mauritania to set out on the first west-east crossing of the Sahara by camel.
It was an unbroken journey of nine months and 4500 miles, and the first recorded crossing of the Sahara from west to east by non-mechanical means. Newswire service Reuters referred to it as “the last great journey man had still to make.”
The trip also made for epic travel writing, by a writer who had worked and lived with nomads for years, and who knows a thing or two about camels. Be careful when you crack this one open–you won’t be able to put it down.
8) In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
Bruce Chatwin redefined the genre by weaving his Patagonian travel narrative with small nuggets of historical information and strange local anecdotes in a seamless tapestry of adventure, exploration and lore.
He was a controversial figure, and there were repeated allegations that he fictionalized some of the characters and conversations in his travel books—but Chatwin himself said his portrayals were not intended to be faithful representations. Instead, he sought to capture the essence of that place and that experience. Whether or not you agree with his approach, the sparse style he developed is a work of art worthy of appreciation.
9) In Search of Conrad – Gavin Young
This book was an immediate favorite for me, because I love the novels of Joseph Conrad.
Gavin Young takes to his sailboat and cruises the Malay Archipelago to visit the places Conrad lived in and wrote about: Jakarta, Borneo and the Celebes in Indonesia, and by cargo-ship from Singapore to Bangkok Young also tracked down the remaining traces of the people who became the inspiration for Conrad’s protagonists in his novels, and he found that though the surface has changed, Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim live on..
This is a very cool book for those who love literature, and the story behind the story.
10) Motoring with Mohammed – Eric Hansen
Eric Hansen is better known for Stranger in the Forest, the account of his walks across Borneo with indigenous peoples. But my personal landscape is the desert and, if forced to choose, I prefer his beautifully written book on Yemen.
This is the story of Hansen’s quest to rescue 7 years worth of journals, which he buried in the sand on a small island in the Red Sea after a shipwreck left him stranded 10 years before. The book is filled with the sort of characters you only meet on the road: a guide forever on the lookout for one more sheep to squeeze into the back seat of his car, madcap expatriates and Eritrean gun runners. At times surreal and always sensitively observed, Motoring with Mohammed is an incredible journey into a largely forgotten corner of Arabia.
Hansen is a first rate travel writer and you should track down all of his work.
So there you have it. My Road Wisdom Top 10 Travel Books. Don’t take this list too seriously—it’s subjective after all, and my top 10 will change over time because I never stop reading.
These are just the first great travel books that popped into my head. You’d also do well to read the journals of Sir Richard Francis Burton, and books by Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Robyn Davidson, Lawrence Millman, and Simon Winchester. That’ll give you a solid start on some of the greats of the genre.
If you give these books and these writers a chance, they’ll open new worlds and expose you to new ideas as you set out on the road to realize your own vagabond dreams.
I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favourite travel books with me in the comments.