Humans are not stationary creatures. Our entire history as a species has been marked by movement, dating back long before we invented our languages or wrote it down. So obviously, once our ancestors figured out how to cross out symbols to communicate, they started writing about travel. One of our first epics – The odyssey – is essentially a travel memoir, and the genre has flourished ever since.
For travelers like me, probably the best part of any trip is stocking up on the books you plan to read on the go. I will intentionally book trains instead of planes so that I can have a little more time to sit and read between having to go out and do things. And if you choose your books well, they can make your trip a richer experience: Paris is a new place after reading Wretched, and London is all the more fascinating after reading Dickens.
The best travel books, however, go further than that. They don’t just make you wanna go somewhere, they make you wanna travel period. Here are a few.
1. In nature, by Jon Krakauer
Chris “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless has become a legend now, 20 years after his death. He abandoned his school, his family and his identity in 1990 and spent two years wandering the country; his body was found on an abandoned bus in Denali National Park. Author Jon Krakauer starts us off on the bus and takes us through the last two years of McCandless’s life. Read the book before you watch Sean Penn’s film adaptation – Penn tends to glorify the whole thing, while Krakauer refuses to hit one of the 20th century’s most interesting nomads.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
I’m still pissed off that Douglas Adams is dead. Because he never had the chance to write a real travel diary (unless you are counting his Last chance to see, which focused on endangered animals), and if he had written about world travel the same way he wrote about universe travel, we would all be richer for it . The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follows a boring ordinary man around the universe after Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. And that’s the least ridiculous sentence I could find to explain the book. Read it and your world will feel smaller.
3. A sense of the world: how a blind man became the greatest traveler in history, by Jason Roberts
You’ve probably never heard of James Holman. He was a member of the British Royal Navy at the beginning of the 19th century when illness left him permanently blind. While this would generally have meant he was destined for a quiet, boring life as an invalid, Holman instead learned echolocation and became one of the most prolific travelers of the 19th century. He then hunted elephants in Ceylon, fought slavery in Africa, mapped the Australian Outback, and wrote a number of books, including one on Indian Ocean wildlife that was said to have influenced Charles Darwin. Holman’s real-life issues will make your budget issues seem insignificant and small.
4. Candid, by Voltaire
Candid is not only one of the best travel books, it could also be one of the best travel allegories. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, basically a young optimist, who believes he’s living in “the best of all possible worlds,” embarks on a series of misadventures that rock him from place to place and allow him to see how harsh and cruel the world can be. For travelers in developing countries, this will ring especially true – the experience of traveling in poor areas is often like bursting your little bubbles of naivety. Reading Candid is a similar experience, but it’s a lot more fun.
5. The geography of happiness, by Eric Weiner
The geography of happiness is an excellent non-fiction book about a cranky foreign correspondent who is tired of being in war zones and decides to go to the happiest countries in the world – as well as the most miserable country. It’s a great overview of what makes people happy and how the definition of happiness and the extent to which it is valued changes from country to country.
6. The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Two of America’s best pulp-horror writers teamed up for this epic fantasy novel, which made me want to hit the road as much as anything I read as a teenager. Stephen King in particular has always specialized in epic quests (with his 7 volumes The Dark Tower series, and its magnum opus, The stall), but this one, about a young boy who has to travel both across the United States and his alternate universe counterpart to retrieve a magical item to save his mother, is like a perverted mix of Huckleberry finn and Edgar Allen Poe, and is awesome read for fantasy fans.
7. Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
Each generation has its iconic story of traveling with friends, the most famous being probably the poetic and dragging story of Jack Kerouac On the road. Hunter S. Thompson took this rather stereotypical genre 15 years later, forced open his mouth, force-fed him gallons of illegal drugs, then dragged him through the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. This resulted in arguably the best friend travel book ever – crazy, twisted praise for the 1960s. I’ve read it eight times now, and it never loses its power. He never lets me stay in my place.
8. BONE, by Jeff Smith
Of course, there is a comic book on this list. The comics are usually written episodically, which makes them particularly well suited to nomadic characters – you walk around a new place every week, get into a few hijinks, and then move on. My favorite among travel comics is BONE, by Jeff Smith. These are three cousins who are driven out of their hometown and fall into a valley full of monsters. It is often described as the Lord of the Rings meets the Saturday morning cartoons, and when it comes to modern epic quests, this is some of the best.
9. Treasure island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Generally, I hate Victorian literature. It’s stuffy and boring and full of snooty people who are really pissed off by good manners. Treasure island is an exception. It’s exciting and easy to read and full of pirates. You already know the story, but read it, especially if you are traveling to the tropics. This will put swash in your loop.
ten. A walk in the woods, by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the best – and funniest – travel writers alive, and just about any of his travel books could have been on this list. A walk in the woods talks about returning to the United States after living in Britain for most of his adult life, and attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail with his old friend, the overweight alcoholic Katz, to get himself familiarize yourself with his native country. It’s brilliant writing, and it’s especially good for guys like me, who like thought of themselves like outdoors, but don’t really like going out unless it’s for a barbecue.