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.
Not sure if this would be up your alley but I loved “In Search of Captain Zero” by Allen Weisbecker http://www.aweisbecker.com/books/zero/
Thanks Dean, I’ll check it out 🙂
“Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition” by Caroline Alexander. A different take on one of Shakleton’s Anarctic expeditions – told from the perspective of the ship’s cat, who not only is not “cutesy”, but isn’t even a “Mrs.”
Just finished “The White Nile” by Alan Baker. It’s a sort of survey of the many legendary explorers who sought the headwaters of that river: Burton, Livingston, Baker, Speke, etc. He’s a good writer and his look at the personalities of these mostly Victorian gents & those they encountered, as well as the characters of the times, the political & economic climates, and the country itself is a significant education. Also seems to illustrate that “the past is prologue”, putting the current troubles in the Sudan and other places in that part of the world into a deeply embedded context.
Great list. I would suggest Pico Iyer’s Global
Thanks Rannoch, I’ll check it out. I enjoyed “Video Night in Katmandu”
Awesome list Ryan!
I’ll add these to my Amazon wish list…and hopefully actually get to them at some point 🙂
Nice to see Kerouac’s name in the article. His book “On The Road” really opened up my mind about traveling out west.
And thankfully, last year I finally made that dream come true…
A good friend and I did a cross-country roadtrip from NY to Cali (including Big Sur & Monterey in true Kerouac fashion)…and it was by far one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had!
Glad you found it helpful! Kerouac was big for me too. A good friend (he was Zachary Peoples in my book Vagabond Dreams) first got me into Kerouac. I went on to read all of his books. You can find a really cool clip of him reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen show. Really makes the words come alive.
Sounds like an amazing road trip. It’s hard to beat North America when it comes to just jumping in a car and driving for days and days and days.
Great list. I have read five and know of three more. I would add one of Bill Tilmans “Mischief” books and one of Freya Starks, maybe “Southern Gates of Arabia” Possibly Ted Simons journey into the self in “Jupiters Travels”
Excellent additions. I ordered a copy of Jupiter’s Travels. It just arrived before we went on the road. Will give it a read when we’re back home.
Thanks for the list, I’m always searching out good travel literature. My favorites are:
The Forgotten Path, by David Norman – The author’s story of driving from England to Nigeria to see a friend in a Ford Escort. I was lucky enough to find a used copy, it was published back in the early 1960’s.
another favorite is:
Sahara Unveiled, by William Langwiesche, his story of traveling from the Mediteranean coast of Algeria through the Sahara on eroding forms of transport, bus, desert taxi, ‘The Sahara a four wheel drive contraption and finally piled high on a dilapedated old truck full of stuff and people headed for N’jamena.
The Last Train to Zona Verde by: Paul Theroux
Of special interest to me is the Mexican Border:
The Border, by: Tom Miller
Cutting for Sign, by: Willian Langweische
My Travels in Narcolandia By: me! H.. Lucien Foshee, I know self serving for such a ‘mickey mouse” self published work, poorly formatted and not well edited but then the goal was to simply see my work in print.
But just wait, I’ll get it right with my novel: The Life and Times of the Bad Green Jesus.
Thanks for the list Ryan, I’ll be buying a few.
Thanks very much for the recommendations, Hank. I’ve read Sahara Unveiled, that’s an essential desert book. Langwiesche also wrote a nice little book on flight called Aloft that I reviewed in Outpost magazine years ago.
The Last Train to Zona Verde was a really good read, but quite bleak compared to Theroux’s other works. It really made me think about why I travel, and if I really do need to see every last corner of the planet, even the really shitty ones.
I don’t know the others but will check them out. Good luck with the novel.
I know you wrote this list yonks ago but (please read in the kind voice with which I intend it): surely now, there should be one great travel book by a woman that you can get behind?
Yes, I posted this list in 2010, possibly even earlier. It must have been one of the first dozen or so articles on my blog.
Martha Gellhorn’s nonfiction is essential. As is Dervla Murphy (my favourites are Wheels Within Wheels; In Ethiopia With a Mule; On a Shoestring to Coorg). Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, and her biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. West With the Night by Beryl Markham. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris. Border and To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova.
Those are a few off the top of my head.