Having something to read on a long flight or an even longer overnight bus is a good idea, but when you choose great travel literature – either before setting off or while you’re already jumping borders, you get so much more than light entertainment. The books below are a must-read because they’re educational, inspirational, motivational, and evoke adventures that make you feel like you’ve been there too.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost
When you feel like there are no destinations that have not by now been well-trodden by the tourist footprint, then read Troost’s hilarious 2004 memoir about his time living with a native tribe on the island of Tarawa out in the Pacific Ocean. It’ll make you want to give up all your worldly possessions, don a loincloth, and dance around a fire. Although this is a laugh-out-loud book that often makes light of his misadventures, there are some interesting observations on the juxtaposition of tribal ways and modernity, what ‘living in paradise’ really means, and the ‘culture shock of coming home’.
Fans of this book might also like his follow-up books, Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu and Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid. Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Blue Highways, A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
One of the American road-trip classics, this is the story of a man who lost both his wife and his job on the same day and took off to travel the backroads of America (the roads marked in blue on state highway maps, hence the book’s title). The portraits he paints of ordinary Americans and the small, forgotten towns they inhabit make you want to discover the hidden side of the States, far from Route 66. The stories are accompanied by a collection of photographs of the people he meets and philosophical musing on the bigger questions, like what we’re doing here and what kind of lives we should lead. A little heavy for a travel writer maybe, but interspersed with his adventures, make for a great read. Buy: Paperback
Holidays in Hell by P.J O’Rourke
A journalistic classic first published in 1989, this is the only book you’ll ever read that would make you want to vacation in a war zone. O’ Rourke, as a war reporter, ducks bombs and dodges bullets in places like Beirut, El Salvador, Panama, and Belfast – and the great thing is that most of his harrowing destinations are relatively safe these days, so you can follow in his footsteps without a flak jacket. Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East by Pico Iyer
Iyer has so many incredible books full of tantalizing travel literature that it’s hard to pick just one. Anecdotal more than historical, the author journeys through the sprawling metropolises of Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore, while contemplating the effect of the American dream on the ancient civilizations of China, Nepal, and Burma. Originally written in 1989, some of these destinations contained in these 11 essays may have changed, but the book is still a must-read for its canny observations, poignant descriptions of the Asian people he meets, and the intelligent humor speckled throughout.
If you enjoy this one, then pick up a copy of Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign, or the more recent The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama both of which feature Iyer’s great knack of making you feel like you’re there with him. Buy: Paperback
In a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson
It’s is incredibly unfair to have to choose just one of Bryson’s books for this list, but if there ever was a book to make you take off for the Southern Hemisphere, this is it. The author is well-known for his razor-sharp wit and random, compelling facts which keep the story bobbing between a hilarious yarn and a historical treasure trove. Bryson himself seems amazed that he survived the sharks, spiders, jellyfish, poisonous snakes, and crocodiles, but even more surprised at how much, in the end, he likes the place.
Don’t miss Bryson’s other offerings, which could make up an entire list of their own: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America to name a few. Buy: Paperback, Kindle
The Gringo Trail by Mark Mann
Somewhat of a cult novel for anyone heading to South America, this gritty memoir follows the drug-fueled expedition of three British backpackers through Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. You may not agree with everything Mann writes (or did), but it’s certainly an interesting alternative if you’ve read enough travel literature about beautiful beaches, hotels, and tours through the jungle. Much like a travel diary, the book details the reality of an extended trip through a difficult continent, the poverty, and racism young backpackers often have to come to terms with, and the cost of such hardships on lifelong friendships. This one may not inspire you to follow in Mann’s footsteps, but it is still an interesting account of an alternative mode of travel. Buy: Paperback
Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon
O’Hanlon is known as a funny travel writer – which is what makes Congo Journey such a masterpiece. The author has toned down his signature sense of humor in order to tell the story of a country torn apart by war and poverty and riddled with hardship and danger. The book recounts a trip down the Congo River, detailing not only the magnificent wildlife O’Hanlon encounters, but the plight of the Congolese he meets and the massive floating villages they live in. Somehow, the account ends up being both amusing and heartbreaking – a rare feat. For a similar read, try Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Buy: Paperback
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Don’t let the fact that this one was published in 1933 put you off. Orwell’s first novel is technically fiction, but based on his own experiences living and working with the down-and-out of two of Europe’s greatest cities. He washes dishes in a dirty kitchen and lives in a slum in Paris, then travels throughout England dressed as a beggar. Like any great travel writing, this book is more about the people than the places, and Orwell’s accounts bring those people sharply into focus. Read this one while sipping coffee in a streetside cafe in Paris, and picture Orwell in the kitchen.
If you like your travel writing historical, political, and intellectual, this is the one for you, or consider another classic: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which documents the author’s own time working in Paris in the early 1920s. Buy: Paperback, Kindle
What’s your favorite travel read?
BootsnAll recently compiled a list of Top 101 Books for Independent Travelers – if you like this list, be sure to check out the much more comprehensive one that we’re always adding to based on reader suggestions!