I typically read about 100 books each year (… and yes, I count them). Everything from travel literature to poetry, history, psychology, fiction and memoir. I’d like to take a moment to share my top reads of the past year—ten great books that earned my Road Wisdom Stamp of Approval, from one book lover to another.
Chasing by Kathryn Woodall
I picked up this excellent first novel on my kindle, and by the end of chapter one it had completely drawn me into its world. It’s a story of inner conflict, personal growth, right and wrong, and the difficulty of questioning everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.
The characters are engaging, the plot is well crafted, and it moves at a pace that stopped me from putting the book down. Chasing is a story for anyone who questions who they are, where they came from, and where their current actions might lead. It’s also a damned fine adventure. I can’t wait for the sequel!
Living the 80/20 Way by Richard Koch
It’s about first identifying: 1) What excites you about what you do?, and 2) What fills you with boredom or dread, or what things do you do because you feel you have to? Your task is to then cut the stuff you hate and focus your energies on the stuff you love—which is pretty much always those things you excel at.
The book also teaches you how to uncover those particular times when you’re most productive. Those moments each day when you’re at your peak. And you focus the important work into those times.
It’s a powerful book, and I’ve been able to apply these ideas to both my writing and my lifestyle.
Beyond Wealth: The Road Map to a Rich Life by Alexander Green
“The goal is to break out of your routine and ask, ‘What am I here for? Am I living so that I can die without regrets? How much of what I do is compromise?’”
The author, Alexander Green, found financial freedom through the investment world. But it didn’t lead him to personal freedom. This book is about the things that did. “Freedom, after all, is not the absence of responsibility. It is the absence of restraints imposed by others.”
If you share my obsession with “lifestyle design”—with creating the ideal life of your choice—then check this one out.
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux
The world’s greatest living travel writer does it again. But this isn’t like any other Paul Theroux book. Rather than take you on a journey to the world’s forgotten corners, he’s taking you on a trip through travel literature itself.
The book examines travel through many different lenses, and through the eyes of some of the greatest literary travelers in the genre. Well chosen excerpts explore themes like travel by railway, travel as ordeal, imaginary travel, bizarre foods, and the fears and neuroses of famous travelers. Quotes are taken from Theroux’s own books, and from greats like Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh, Sir Francis Galton and more. I like to think that I’m extremely well read in this genre, but I ended up with a shortlist of new writers and classics to track down.
This is the kind of book you can enjoy at random, or in short sips. But if you’re like me you’ll read it cover to cover in one long all-night blast. I couldn’t put it down. Perfect for the person who likes books or travel—or preferably, both.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
“I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.”
I love Murakami’s writing style. His well chosen references to music or drink. And that sense of nostalgia that pervades all his work. His novels also remind me of the years I spent in Japan. He just gets those details of life exactly right, and he’s brilliant at capturing that weird dislocation of Tokyo souls.
Norwegian Wood was the only Murakami novel I hadn’t yet read. And I thought it was one of his best.
The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin
It’s the story of two German geologists in Namibia at the start of World War Two: Henno Martin, Hermann Korn, and their dog Otto. They watched from a distance as a self-destructive madness engulfed Europe. And they knew they didn’t want any part of it. If they stayed in Windhoek they would no doubt be sent to an internment camp with the other German residents. And so they fled into the Namib Desert instead.
The book tells the tale of how they survived out there for two and a half years. How they learned to hunt and find water, to build shelter and make tools. It’s also filled with astute observations about the human psyche, and what it means to be “primitive.” In one passage, Martin writes, “It was about this time that we noticed a change in the subject of our dreams. Animals began to play an increasing part in them and the distinction between human beings and animals became blurred.” It’s interesting to speculate on how much of our mythology, of shape shifting and anthropomorphic gods, emerged naturally from a hunting life.
I was so impressed by this book that I made the long drive to Kuiseb Canyon just to see with my own eyes the landscape that Henno Martin wrote about and lived in. Watch for that in my upcoming Outpost magazine feature on Namibia.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
This twelve-volume novel cycle was my big fiction highlight of 2011. Published between 1951 and 1975, “A Dance to the Music of Time” is one of the longest works of fiction in literature. It’s the story of Nick Jenkins told in the form of one long reminiscence, sparked by fireplace coals and thoughts of Poussin’s painting of the same name.
It’s difficult to sum up twelve novels like this in just a couple of paragraphs. But Robert L. Selig did it well: “The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. The standard excitements of old fashioned plots…seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, in intricate human arabesques.”
At first glance you’d think twelve novels that cover a span of 55 years, with over 400 characters, would be confusing, tedious, or overblown. It was none of those things. The characters are wonderful, and the journey was comical, melancholy, tragic and everything in between. A lot like human experience, actually.
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
I love maps and atlases. And I love obscure corners of the planet. This book combines both. Much of it is probably about islands you’ve never heard of, and places the vast majority of us will never visit—not even professional travel writers. But that’s one of the best things about this book: its mystery. It brings a sense of discovery back to a world that seems to contain so few untravelled places.
The maps are beautifully drawn. The paper is heavy. And the prose poem stories that accompany each island are fascinating and sometimes otherworldly. This is a book for dreaming.
“There is no more poetic book than an atlas,” Schalansky writes. And I’d have to agree.
The History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel
“Find the key to a civilization: Greece, a civilization of the Aegean, from Thrace to Crete—and not a Balkan peninsula. Egypt, a civilization that tamed the Nile.” This, Braudel writes, is the key to understanding the currents of history. And his advice holds just as true for a travel writer who wants to grasp the Spirit of Place.
Separate sections of the book explore the Muslim world, Black Africa, the Far East, Western and Eastern Europe, the New World, and the “English speaking universe” of the colonies. But Braudel goes beyond history to paint a broad brush picture that draws on anthropology, sociology, geography, psychology, and linguistics. He writes in an engaging style, with “thick” descriptions that bring the larger story of humanity to life.
Africa: Biography of a Continent by John Reader
I read this book in the lead up to a trip to Namibia. Reader provides a great broad-brush overview of African history from an Africa-centred perspective, drawing heavily on the evolution of hominids, geology and geography. And he paints a very different picture than what you’ll find in most post-colonial modern history texts.
Reader turns many widely-accepted notions of Africa on their heads. The competition for resources is seen as much more important than warfare; small peaceful communities as more significant than the noisy leadership of “big men”; and the developments and innovations of Africans as much more significant than was previously acknowledged by those who prefer to see the continent as stagnant and undeveloped until “liberated” by the West.
It’s a massive book, but well worth your time. Essential reading for anyone traveling to the Dark Continent.
So there you have it. My top ten reads from the past year.
What stood out for you in 2011? Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always on the lookout for recommendations.