I love reading books. I really, really love reading books. Aside from the long separation from friends and family, the hardest part of leaving was boxing up my fledgling library of 300+ volumes to sit in storage until I get back. In the meantime, though, I can at least point you to some gems in the literary rough — each of which is well worth putting in your backpack to help kick off your own next big adventure.
If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you either travel quite a lot already, or want to at some point in your life. One thing you’ll find very quickly is that any more than one or two books in a pack can be quite heavy. To solve your problems, I can whole-heartedly recommend the Amazon Kindle. It’s lightweight, can store dozens and dozens of books, and is surprisingly easy to read — and, for those of you who like taking notes, it even comes with a fairly easy-to-use thumb keyboard.
For travelers, I’d recommend the Kindle 3G with global coverage. It’s $50 more than the regular version ($190 total), but the 3G works in over a hundred different countries, and is completely free. Combine that capability with the built-in browser, and you suddenly have the ability to send emails and check Twitter and Facebook anywhere you have 3G coverage, without having to pay for an expensive international data plan on your phone.
But now, down to brass tacks.
Given that this is, after all, a travel blog, travel writing seems to be a decent place to start.
A Vagabond Journey Around the World by Harry Franck
Harry Franck’s “A Vagabond Journey Around the World” was one of those rare and random used bookstore finds that stays with you the rest of your life. Franck, known in his time as “the prince of vagabonds,” traveled around the world in the first decade of the twentieth century with nothing more than a camera, $5 in cash, and the clothes on his back, working his passage as a sailor on a cattle ship, walking through mountain paths in Italy where villagers had never heard of the United States, and traveling by foot through Palestine, India, and Burma, among other locales rarely visited by Europeans at that time. This book was a major inspiration for my decision to travel around the world without flying.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Who doesn’t like trains? This was the first book by Paul Theroux I read, three or four years ago, and still my favorite — in fact, I picked it again as the book to get me through my 50-hour train ride from Salt Lake City to New York. It seemed fitting. From London to Tokyo and back again, all by train; in adventure in any time.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Worth noting: the version linked to and pictured at left is “The Original Scroll,” a direct transcription of the original 120-foot continuous scroll of paper, without paragraph breaks or formatting, the manuscript was first typed on.
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
I’ve always loved southern Utah. I’ve hiked there with my family since I was a young boy, and the windswept redrock has never ceased to fascinate me. Nobody writes about it better than Ed Abbey, libertarian, conservationist, and likeably occasional ecoterrorist extraordinaire.
Bonus pick: The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey’s fictional account of a group of people devoted to conserving the American southwest — by any means possible. Smart, funny, and contains accounts of burning down ugly billboards in the middle of the night.
The Odyssey: The Fitzgerald TranslationThe original travel tale. Homer’s account of Odysseus’ trials and tribulations on the long road home is as fascinating now as it was in pre-classical Greece. Homer’s works served as one of the foundations of classical Grecian thought, and fill to this day a vital place in the arc of European history and culture.
Closely related to the travel genre are the great accounts of adventurers the world over. Sometimes intentional, sometimes accidentals, great adventures nearly always make for great stories.
Endurance, by Alfred Lansing
In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton and 28 men attempted to cross Antarctica from coast to coast. Before they even made landfall, their ship (the Endurance) was caught in ice and broken apart. Shackleton and his crew were forced to abandon ship and travel across treacherous ice for months before finally making camp on a desolate spit of land on the Antarctic coast. What followed was an 800 mile journey in an open boat to the island of South Georgia off the South American coast, across some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Astoundingly, Shackleton and his entire crew were rescued without a single loss. This may be the greatest adventure story I’ve ever read.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
Now a major (and quite good) film, Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless’ ill-fated journey around North America and finally into the Alaskan wilderness. While the film only covers that one story, though, the book is a broader, more rambling examination of the urge to take off and go, to abandon everything, to explore. As such, it can’t help but strike a chord in any chronic traveler’s heart, even as it sheds light on the importance of those very connections.
There’s nothing like a good novel with which to pass a long bus ride or a quiet afternoon in a cafe. There’s no way I could list all of my favorite novels, so I’m going to stick with the ones that have inspired me to go new places, and to try new things.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
A tale written as a novel and claiming to be autobiographical, Shantaram is an excellent read regardless of how closely it follows Roberts’ life, and all the more fascinating for those places where it clearly lines up.
Shantaram begins with Roberts’ arrival in Bombay, on the run as one of Australia’s most wanted criminals and recovering from a heroin addiction. What follows is the founding of a free medical clinic in one of the city’s slums, connections with the criminal underworld, an expedition to ferry arms into Afghanistan to aid in the fight against Russian occupation, and, inevitably, love. A sprawling, beautiful tale, with descriptions of Bombay that compel the readers to drop everything and visit for themselves.
Shadow Country, by Peter Mathiessen
Originally published as a trilogy, Shadow Country is a doorstop of a book set in the turn of the century in the almost uninhabited swamplands of Florida. In a time when the rest of the world was industrializing, speeding up, and covering everything in metal, the swamps remained primeval, and their human occupants never anything more than visitors. What Fitzgerald was to the elites of Manhattan and Long Island, Mathiessen is to the swamps and a people rarely thought of by the rest of the world.
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
First recommended to me by my Couchsurfing host in Athens, 100 Years of Solitude was a heady affair, a blending of history and fantasy, of dirt and magic. Marquez is a fantastic writer, even translated, and I can’t wait to learn Spanish well enough to read him in his own language. While the town 100 Years focuses on is fictional, the atmosphere feels very real; it may not make you want to travel to a specific place, but it will certainly make you want to travel.
Bonus pick: Love in a Time of Cholera. I haven’t finished this book yet, so I won’t comment fully on it, but it won’t take more than a few pages to move Cartagena, Columbia to your short list of literary destinations.
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
The most recent book on this list, and an entrancing read. Fragments of a single overarching narrative, jumbled and re-collected, written in liquid prose, come together to form a creation that is narrative but not in the usual way; a story almost dreamlike in the impact it leaves on the mind. Another work hailing from India, this one is set in Ayemenem, in the Kerala state of India.
For me, a major part of travel has always been studying the history behind each place I visit. Without some understanding of what a place and a people has gone through, old rocks will never be more than old rocks, albeit stacked in strikingly photogenic piles.
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
This is one of the most eye-opening books of history I’ve ever read. Diamond examines issues of colonization, literacy, and “civilization” by looking back to the original spread of the human race, and makes a compelling case for a climate and ecologically-based interpretation of human development around the world. Extremely well thought-out, and exhaustively researched.
Bonus pick: Diamond’s Collapse, which followed up Guns, Germs and Steel and applied the same ecological examination to the modern world, by looking at ecological cases in the past and around the world, including cultures in Easter Island, Papua New Guinea, and Norse Iceland.
The Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, by Plutarch
Called with good reason “the father of biography,” Plutarch spins tales as gripping as they are historically important. He’s been as influential in the literary world as the academic; at least two of Shakespeare’s plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra) were directly based on Plutarch’s works. I bought a volume of the Lives while in Rome, hoping for a dense read that would occupy my whole time there. Not so: I burned through the entire book in just a few days. The link and image point to that volume, as the full collection is much more expensive.
Face of the Ancient Orient, by Sabatino Moscati
While this one is a bit dustier than the rest of the books on this list, Face of the Ancient Orient provides an excellent history of preclassical Mesopotamia and Syria, an area which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world to travel. Learn about the brutal Assyrian laws, Sumerian cuneiform writing, Egyptian poetry, and the invasion of the mysterious Sea Peoples — and then head to Turkey and Syria and check out some of these ruins for yourself.
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, by Jim Krane
Look at the same region three thousand years later, and a bustling metropolis now stands on a coast that once housed only a few villages of pearl fishermen. City of Gold is an engaging and readable journalistic account of the rise of Dubai from a mud-walled town without electricity in the fifties to the international contender it is today — as well as some of the obstacles it overcame along the way, and some of the problems it faces today.
If a standard education in the modern world trains you to fit a place in society, to play a role, the education provided by travel is closer to the classical idea of education: it trains you to be a better human, and to better understand your fellow humans. (Note: travel in the form of partying on Kos or the beaches of Thailand probably doesn’t count as knowing your fellow humans better in any real sense except, possibly, the Biblical one).
The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tze
The nice thing about Chinese philosophy is that it’s written as poetry. Slog through a German writer like Hegel or Von Clausewitz, and Lao Tze will read as easy as a summer breeze. But then you’ll read it again, and find new wisdom in those short lines — and again, and again, and again. Don’t let the brevity of this volume fool you; it’s been influencing the development of human civilization for more than 2500 years.
Always my favorite book in the Jewish Tanach/Christian Old Testament, Ecclesiastes is a beautiful example of Sumerian philosophy. It’s the questioning of an unknown man (traditionally Solomon, King of Israel) facing a vast and incomprehensible universe. It’s desperation, resignation; the tragedy of not knowing.
“And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.” Travelers would do well to remember that the gap in knowledge between ourselves and this ancient writer is, in the context of the universe, very small; we still know nothing, and in the end, the things we do will mean very little.
Orientalism, by Edward W. Said
As much a book of history as of philosophy, Orientalism falls under this category because it is a criticism of the process of history itself, as well as of the rest of the European approach to “the Orient.” While the Orientalism depicted here is mostly a product of the last century, examples of it still abound (if you don’t believe me, read this book and then go watch 300).
This book serves as a good reminder for travelers not to try to break our experiences into too-general categories; the world is far more complex than can be described by “east” and “west,” “local” and “foreigner,” and “us” and “them.”
The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James
While I’m not religious myself, William James presents the best case I’ve ever read for taking religion seriously and personally. Aside from that, he’s a pragmatist, and his work was a major influence on my own philosophical ideas, which you can read about over at Euthoria, my other blog.
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
If you can get past the perhaps overly antagonistic title, Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” is the other side of the coin from James’ subjective religion. Dawkins is rational and eloquent in this defense of atheism — though perhaps “offense from” might be a better phrase. As atheists and non-religious are one of the fastest-growing portions of population in the developed world, this book might be worth reading even if you’re a believer, if only to help you understand the viewpoints of your countryfolk and fellow travelers.
Science is to history what history is to travel. Without science, history has no context. I’m of the opinion that every field of study adds a new dimension to the world we see, and any of the sciences will enrich your experience of the planet you move across.
Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan
If one is to understand one’s place in the world, one must also understand the world’s place in the universe. This is the book to get you started: Sagan takes you out to the other worlds orbiting our sun, and to what lays beyond. He also paints an intriguing picture of what our future might look like.
Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
The more we understand about our universe, the more we realize just how little we know. Look behind the curtain of what’s obvious on the surface and you’ll find a strange and often incomprehensible reality. At least, that’s what you’ll find if you’re Stephen Hawking. For us mere mortals, his book is the next best thing.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
I wish I had room and time to list all of the books I’ve read and loved over the world, but I don’t. Instead, I’ll add items to this list as I think of them or as I read them.
What about you? I’d love to hear your suggestions — it’s always nice to have another book to read.