The art of travel writing has been around for a long time. Nowadays, anyone who manages to escape their tri-state area has a travel blog. But back when the methods of transport to which we’re accustomed weren’t nearly as available or fast as they are today, not everyone could afford to jet off to another land. Instead, they had to satisfy their wanderlust in a vicarious way. Travel literature has long been a transportive vehicle for those who wish to be whisked away to foreign lands, but can’t manage to squeeze it in over a weekend.
Travel literature can mean a lot of things. It can refer to narratives, fictional stories as well as handy guide books to help you navigate in a strange land; nature writing – whether its the geography, animal or plant life – along with ethnographic works that illumine the cultures and histories of different lands. If the purpose of a book is to enrapture and to transport – to suck the reader in, and force him or her to vacate all other thoughts in favor of the inward adventure that’s been launched – then travel books are the ultimate achievement of that pursuit. Take a look at this list of the 20 best travel books, and take a vacation in your mind.
Into The Wild
Into The Wild captured the world’s attention when it was first published in 1997. You may have seen the movie, starring Emil Hirsch as Chris McCandless. McCandless was a curious and intrepid young man, a capital-R Romantic who, disenchanted with the greed and superficiality of American society, set out to live a simpler and more adventurous life. His journey would take him all across the States, into Mexico, and back up the coastline. He ultimately ended up in Alaska, where he sought to truly see what he was made of by living completely off the grid in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. There, McClandless – self-nominated “Alexander Supertramp” – tragically succumbed to poisoned seeds he inadvertently ingested. His story resonated with young people when it was first reported, and it has remained one of the most moving travel narratives published.
Author: Jon Krakauer
Length: 240 pages
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
There are plenty of books that escort readers to the well-worn wonders of the world; Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls. As indicated by its name, Joshua Foer’s book Atlas Obscura takes readers to the obscurer corners of the world, to places you’ve never heard of or daren’t go. Such hidden gems include: the glowworm caves in New Zealand, a pub inside the trunk of a baobob tree in South Africa, the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia, or the fiery pit in Turkmenistan referred to as the “Gates of Hell.” Deviate from the road more-traveled locales, ditch the tourist traps, and get obscure around the world.
Author: Joshua Foer
Length: 481 pages
1,000 Places To See Before You Die
You’ve likely seen this book on more coffee tables than you can count. Published in 2003, Patricia Schultz’s encyclopedic guide to the best places on this Earth has become a ubiquitous table-topper in the erudite cocktail rooms of avid travelers and readers of the New Yorker. The robust compendium features the marvels that you have and haven’t heard of, from the Grand Canyon and the Dead Sea to the Lewis and Clark Exploration Trail and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Western Samoan home. The book received an update in 2011 (sorry to those who died in the 8 years in between) and there’s an iPad version for those who like to explore digitally.
Author: Patricia Schultz
Length: 992 pages
A Cook’s Tour
Last month, the world lost a legend. Anthony Bourdain was not just a world class chef, he was also an exceptional memoirist, diarist, and writer in general. He embodied the classical archetype of the flaneur, the roaming observer, and found himself often in the most interesting places with equally interesting people, as a result of his genial and charismatic personality, to which people were automatically drawn. In 2002, Bourdain published A Cook’s Tour, which follows his travels as he seeks out the perfect meal, zig-zagging across the world in search of the ultimate dish. If you find yourself curious about an icon in the culture of cuisine, A Cook’s Tour is a great place to start.
Author: Anthony Bourdain
Length: 288 pages
While most people travel to see the typical sights – hitting the major points of intrigue, the metropolises and big cities – William Least Heat-Moon set out to do just the opposite; to skirt around the big cities in order to discover the beauty of the American hinterlands. Rather than big cities, Least Heat-Moon wanted to see “those little towns that get on the map-if they get on at all-only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.” Blue Highways is widely considered one of the best pieces of American travel writing in the canon, and it captures the essence of small-town America in a way that other travel writing deliberately overlooks.
Author: William Least Heat-Moon
Length: 448 pages
Travels with Charley In Search Of America
Some consider John Steinbeck the quintessential American writer. The author of The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men (and more), Steinbeck’s last literary contribution before he passed was Travels With Charley In Search Of America. In 1960, Steinbeck undertook a long journey with his dog, a standard poodle by the name of Charley, out of his desire to see the country one more time. The 10,000 mile journey took him from Maine across the country to the Pacific Northwest, down to his home turf of Salinas Valley, California, through Texas and the deep south, and back to the Northeast, finishing New York. During the journey, Steinbeck came to understand that the country was changing greatly, and the conflicted culture he witnessed from sea to shining sea ends the book on a rather uncertain note.
Author: John Steinbeck
Length: 288 pages
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
William Finnegan lived his life with no limits but the horizon. A true renegade who spent most of his time riding waves, Finnegan was raised in California and Hawaii, and began surfing at a young age. Rough waters surround him as a he grows up. He eventually develops into a writer and war reporter, followed by phases as a hippie, a fisherman, and an adventurer. As Finnegan’s life undulates, upheaves, twists and turns, one constant remains throughout: surfing. If you love travel and you love surfing, pick up a copy of Barbarian Days.
Author: William Finnegan
Length: 464 pages
Patagonia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Giant mountains scrape the sky like towering giants. Huge, crystal clear lakes reflect brilliant sunsets. It’s the perfect place to camp, and contemplate – and Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia is the perfect companion to your reflection. More than mere imagery, Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia have deep histories, and Chatwin discusses the intractable pasts in which the mountains and skies of Patagonia are steeped, as he travels throughout the remote yet replete region. He discusses the Welsh colonists, the violent massacre known as the Patagonia Rebelde, and a time when bandits and outlaws roamed the lawless land.
Author: Bruce Chatwin
Length: 240 pages
The Snow Leopard
In the early ’70s, Henry Matthiessen and his colleague set out to the mountain country of Nepal in order to study the Himalayan blue sheep. A faint hope glimmered in their minds: the possibility of witnessing the mythical snow leopard. The white, spotted leopard had only been seen by a Westerner twice in the last twenty years. The majestic feline was a chimera; they knew the possibility of glimpsing the rare and beautiful creature to be highly unlikely. But maybe… As Matthiessen climbs higher into the befogged mountains, his thoughts become clearer. He ruminates on the nature of life, the beauty of love and difficulty of loss (his wife, Deborah, had passed away just before the journey). A deeply introspective book that corresponds to the placid silence of the region in which it is set.
Author: Peter Matthiessen
Length: 368 pages
In A Sunburned Country
No, it’s not the novelization of Kangaroo Jack. Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country follows his adventures in the land down under. He discovers not only that it’s a place where women glow and men plunder, but a land of beauty and grace, and well as one that, if you aren’t careful, can kill you. Bryson cheekily narrates his travels and encounters with aussies – both animal and human – and ends up having a rollicking time in the old prison colony.
Author: Bill Bryson
Length: 352 pages
The Rum Diary
His second novel, actually written before the breakout success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but not published until many years later, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary tells the story of an American freelance writer named Paul Kemp traveling to Puerto Rico, for a respite from the hectic capitalistic chaos of the American rat race. There, the young American Kemp indulges in hedonism and depraved acts, drinks to excess, and contemplates the comparatively depressive lifestyle he led back home – ultimately to wonder if he should even bother returning.
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Length: 224 pages
Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
The vagabond, the nomad, the wanderer – some associate the term with a lazy and iniquitous sort; drifters and grifters, people whose aversion to a sedentary life stems from a constitutional incompatibility with civility and decency. But vagabonding, to Rolf Potts, means something else. It means freedom. A book that tackles the methodology of living a free life in today’s day and age, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel is full of tips and tricks for how to get around, and – when it comes time – assimilating back into the “real” world.
Author: Rolf Potts
Length: 240 pages
Back in 1950 when the journey began, Che Guevera was not yet a revolutionary. He was a 23-year-old medical student who wanted to know the land he was born in a little better, before (he thought) he was to begin a career in medicine. With his friend Alberto Granado, Che hopped on a single cylinder 1939 Norton 500cc that they nicknamed La Poderosa – “the Mighty One” – and explored the South American continent. What he saw – the huge disparity in quality of life between peoples, the abject poverty faced by those in rural areas, and the injustice throughout – contributed greatly to Guevera’s transformation into a radical icon in the ’60s.
The Motorcycle Diaries
Author: Che Guevara
Length: 175 pages
The Dharma Bums
Though less well-known than Kerouac’s magnus opus On The Road, The Dharma Bums is an equally enrapturing tale of travel, from the railroads, to the Bohemian San Francisco scene, to the high sierras in search of a more profound truth. The books follows the relationship between Japhy Ryder, the mountainclimbing and iconoclastic poet, and Ray Smith, a calmer, slightly less vivacious writer. The book is a roman a clef, or book with a key, that retells the story of Kerouac (as Smith) and his relationship with poet Gary Snyder (as Ryder). It’s a marathon of back and forth travel, an insight into the roaring ’60s lifestyle of the Beatniks.
Author: Jack Kerouac
Length: 244 pages
The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World
Better than an Atlas, The Travel Book By Roz Perkins condenses every country in the world to under 500 pages and manages to summarily take your breath away, with vivid images, anecdotes, and histories of the most inspiring places on the planet. Less focused on the objective facts, the geography or plant-life or history per se, the book offers an experiential guide to every single country on the globe.
Author: Roz Hopkins
Length: 448 pages
Adventures of a Young Naturalist The Zoo Quest Expeditions
You likely know Sir David Attenborough – or at least his voice. As the narrator of Planet Earth, Attenborough is an excellent companion for televisual travel. But in his younger years, he was a naturalist and a scientist who went on his own escapades, deep into new and strange places, in search of knowledge and experience with nature. In 1954, Sir David was sent on the adventure of a lifetime – into the wilderness of various countries in order to find the rarest and most untraceable animals for the London Zoo’s collection. The journey was also documented in a BBC series called “Zoo Quest.” Sir David retells the tale with characteristic charisma of his search for giant anteaters in Guyana, Komodo dragons in Indonesia, and armadillos in Paraguay.
Author: David Attenborough
Length: 400 pages
The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway traveled far and wide in his day. From his birthplace of Oak Park, Illinois, he fought in WWI, then lived in Canada for a short time before moving to Europe, alongside writers like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the roaring ’20s. That was when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, the tale of a tragically injured WWI veteran visiting Pamplona, Spain to see the bullfights. The protagonist, Jake, travels throughout Europe, seeing the wonders of the continent, all the while caught in a tragic, impossible romance with the lovely Bret. The Sun Also Rises was among Hemingway’s first great successes, and one can only surmise its accurate correlation to Hemingway’s own life during this period.
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Length: 251 pages
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown
Paul Theroux is one of the most accomplished travel writers in the writing world. Having traveled extensively in Africa – including a brief stint in the Peace Corps, of which he was kicked out for aiding a political opponent of Malawi Prime Minister Hastings Banda escape to Uganda – Theroux writes as someone who has seen it all, yet still loves the thrill of exploration. In Dark Star Safari, Theroux overlands in a 4x4 from the top of Egypt to the bottom of South America, describing the amazing continent with vitalizing voice that paints a vivid picture.
Author: Paul Theroux
Length: 496 pages
Mark Twain is about as American as Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, etc. His yarns about life on the Mississippi and his experience on steam boats can all be considered travel-logues, but Roughing It is the essential Twain on the road. The memoir follows a young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) as he tries to make his way through the wild west. He joins his brother Orion Clemens on a stagecoach journey out West, passing through Salt Lake City, learning of gold and silver prospecting, real-estate speculation, and taking a journey to the Kingdom of Hawaii. Among the first works Twain ever published, Roughing It offers an insight into the surly writer as a young man.
Author: Mark Twain
Length: 480 pages
How To Invent Anything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
How To Invent Anything is a guide made for a different kind of travel – time travel. In the same vein as your conventional wilderness survival guide, this awesome book by Ryan North is a veritable reference book for the accidental McFly, should you trip and stumble irretrievably into the days of primitive society. From philosophy to technology, art to science, North explains how to survive – and thrive – from scratch.
Author: Ryan North
Published: Sept, 2018
Length: 464 pages
The 10 Best Motorcycle Books
These days, it’s easy to hop online and buy a flight to any country in the world. But for years, people have been traveling across the globe with nothing more than a tank of gas and two wheels. Check out this list of the best motorcycle books and experience these epic journeys.
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