Sunday Salon: An Ode to Travel Books

(I know it’s Mother’s Day, here in the US. I’m not particularly fond of it — even though I am being spoiled with breakfast in bed served by my beautiful daughters — so I’m not going to write about it.)

At my in-person book group this month, we got to talking about traveling, both with and without kids. At one point, I said that I long to travel and to see new things, and that it sometimes frustrates me that I won’t get to see all I want to see. Then I said, “That’s why I read travel books.” I immediately thought of this piece that I first wrote this for Estella’s Revenge, back in May 2008. I thought it’d be good to share again.


I adore travel books.

By “travel books,” I don’t mean the travel guides that line the shelves of the bookstore with lists of what to do and where to go (though I have to admit, I do like reading those, too), nor do I mean novels where a certain place is essential to the plot. No, what I mean are the non-fiction books, an author taking a journey somewhere, experiencing a different life for a while, and then writing about his or her experience.
Those are the travel books I love.

I have also called them “place books” because, for me, the most important element of the book needs to be a sense of wonder and excitement and anticipation about the places the author sees and the people the author meets. Without some element of respect and wonder, the book just becomes a catalog of events, a journey not worth taking. But with it, the book transports, taking me places and doing things I would never dream of doing (like giving up normal life for a house in Tuscany, or sailing the world following Captain Cook, or walking the length of the Appalachian Trail), experiencing new, unusual, and sometimes incredible places and people.

I love these books for many reasons. It’s because I can be inspired and entertained by these escapades in ways I can’t when they are fictional characters. Real people did these real things: it’s enough to motivate me to be just a little bit better, work just a little bit outside the mold, and think a bit more outside the box. It’s also because they’re accessible: most of these writers are journalists, and they write in a way that resonates with me in ways that novelists sometimes don’t. And it’s partly because it allows me to see the world in a way I couldn’t when I travel, even if I could imagine myself going some of these places. I want to visit Antigua, and live there for a month, and get to know the local people, but time and money and lifestyle just don’t mesh with that ideal. I admire these people, admire their willingness to get up and go and do.

Perhaps there’s a bit of a traveler in all of us, wanting to reach out and experience something beyond our mundane lives. Here is a list of 15 of my favorites, as well as others that sound interesting, to get you started (all descriptions of books I haven’t read came — in part — from

1. There will never, ever be a travel list without some book of Bill Bryson’s. He is, in my mind, the king of travel writers, the epitome of interesting journeys, witty observation, and superb writing. My two personal favorites are Walk in the Woods about his experiences walking the Appalachian Trail and In a Sunburned Country, about his escapades across Australia.

2. Around the World in 80 Days — not the Jules Verne novel, but the one by Michael Palin. Yes, it’s the same guy from Monty Python (and A Fish Called Wanda) fame. He’s spent the last 20 years traveling the world for the BBC in a series of specials. Around the World was the first one, the one that started it all. Watch the shows; they are interesting and fun, but also pick up the companion books. Palin’s a good writer with dry wit and self-deprecating humor, yet he never forgets a love and awe for the places he’s been and the people he’s met.

3. Ciao, America! — Capturing the odd sights and scents of Beppe Severgnini’s destination, Washington D.C., this book is a tale of quirky discoveries in a country obsessed with ice cubes, air-conditioning, recliner chairs, and after-dinner cappuccinos. From their first encounters with cryptic rental listings to their back-to-Europe yard sale twelve months later, the Severgninis explore their new territory with the self-described patience of mildly inappropriate beachcombers.

4. Confederates in the Attic — While Tony Horwitz isn’t usually considered a travel writer, I lump him in because his books usually involve some sort of journey and a strong sense of place. I’ve read all his books, but my favorite (hands down) is this one. If you haven’t read his escapades through the deep south, please do. It’s funny, and that’s the God’s-honest truth. (I had a Southern lady tell me once that Horwitz just “got” Southerners.) His newest is A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World — about the Europeans who preceded the Pilgrims to America. Not a travel book, per se, but it sounds fascinating.

5. Down the Nile — I read the blurb on the back of this book, and thought to myself that Rosemary Mahoney is a woman with cahones, because not many women would even consider doing what she did. She was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile in a small boat, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Whether she’s confronting deeply held beliefs about non-Muslim women, finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile, or coming to the dramatic realization that fear can engender unwarranted violence, Rosemary Mahoney’s informed curiosity about the world, her glorious prose, and her wit never fail to captivate.

6. Eat, Pray, Love — Facing an early mid-life crisis at age 30, Elizabeth Gilbert decided to take a year of life to find herself. Traveling to Italy (the art of pleasure), India (the art of devotion) and Indonesia (for a balance between the two), this book is the chronicle of her adventures and insights. An intensely articulate and moving memoir of self-discovery, it’s is about what can happen when you claim responsibility for your own contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals.

7. An Embarrassment of Mangoes — author Ann Vanderhoof and her husband Steve take off for two years on a sailboat and head south from Toronto to the Caribbean. It’s the story of their adventures, of life on a smallish sailboat, and of the people they met on the islands. Wonderful, inspiring and fascinating.

8. The Geography of Bliss — self-proclaimed grump Eric Weiner travels from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author’s case, moments of “un-unhappiness.” The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is.

9. Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa — documentary film maker Karin Muller spends a year in Japan trying to figure out the meaning of wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, sometimes awesomely funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese. She as also written Along the Inca Road, about her journeys in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Chile.

10. No Touch Monkey! — Curator of kitsch and unabashed aficionada of pop culture, Ayun Halliday offers bemused, self-deprecating narration of her itinerant foibles as examples of how not to travel abroad. An admitted bumbling vacationer, Halliday shares, with razorsharp wit and to hilarious effect, the travel stories most are too self-conscious to tell. Besides, who can resist a book with a Steven Colbert blurb on the cover?

11. The Royal Road to Romance — This is the oldest travel book I’ve read. It was written in 1925, but it’s an exciting and amazing tale of Richard Halliburton’s journeys around the world. He literally bummed his way, hitching rides on steamers, stealing trips on trains, biking, walking… things that very few people these days would even think of doing. It’s wonderful to read, with a jaunty style that just captivated me. Halliburton was everything a travel writer should be: rash, daring and a lot of fun to accompany on his adventures.

12. Tales of a Female Nomad – In 1986, at the age of 48 and facing an impending divorce, Rita Goldmen Gelman gave up all her possessions and decided to live in third world countries, experiencing what the natives experience. She no longer has a home, and she only owns what she can carry on her back. It’s a fascinating and inspiring tale of her experiences.

13. Under the Tuscan Sun — A love story by Frances Mayes about a her love for a house, a place, a dream. A truly beautiful book to read: her descriptions of the land, the area of Cortone in Tuscany, the house itself and all the renovations, are fabulous and picturesque. She’s written several other books including A Year in the World.

14. A Year in Provence — Like Under the Tuscan Sun, this month-by-month account chronicles the charms and frustrations that Peter Mayle and his wife — and their two large dogs — experience their first year in the remote country of the Luberon restoring a two-centuries-old stone farmhouse that they bought on sight.

15. Yemen: The Unknown Arabia — Writing with an intimacy and a depth of knowledge gained through thirteen years among the Yemenis, Mackintosh-Smith is a traveling companion of the best sort–erudite, witty, and eccentric. Crossing mountain, desert, ocean, and three millennia of history, he reveals a land that, in the words of a contemporary poet, has become the dictionary of its people.

Do you have any others to add to the list?


8 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: An Ode to Travel Books

  1. I don't have a single book to add, can you believe that? My problem with travel writing is that I so much would rather be DOING the travel that I don't love reading about it. But, you're inspiring me and maybe I want to give one a try. I have read A Walk in the Woods and that was awesome.

    Which one is so awesome that it will make me not feel sad that I'm not traveling myself??


  2. Can I just say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE this list?! Seriously. I'm not big on travel writing, but there are definitely a few here that caught my eye. I'll be starring it for reference.



  3. I'm a not-so-secret fan of old travel books, the sort where someone decides that going into the heart of Africa is a fun idea and then does it. But! I also like modern ones– for instance, Miles from Nowhere: A Round the World Bicycle Adventure by Barbara Savage is a really good one that's not on your list. It's about a husband and wife who bicycle around the world, and it's got that sense of wonder that you talked about. 😀


  4. Just a thank you here. I saw your comment on Abby the Librarian's post. Lot's of people want to fry me for having my own opinion about an opinion 😛 Glad you could see what I was *trying* to say.


  5. I took a course on The Travel Narrative, which killed any potential of my just reading travel books/memoirs for pleasure.

    That said, there were a few good ones amidst the assigned reading: Joan Didion's Salvador, Tracks by Robyn Davidson (Australia), Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Australia; the teacher swore by Chatwin), Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris (Mexico), and plenty in the class enjoyed Monkey Dancing by Dan Glick (though I didn't). Then we read a lot of entries of The New Yorker's Travel writing editions (to include some David Sedaris). Travelers' Tales puts out an annual edition/series of 'The Best Travel Writing' that might interest you.

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)


  6. Sorry to be late commenting but I couldn't resist. I LOVE travel books and many on your list I've either read or are on my to read list. Bill Bryson rocks!!
    Additional, recommendations would include include the historical recreations such as The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin and the travels by Canadian Will Ferguson to Japan and Ireland.
    Next on my list to read is by Jeffry Masson, Slipping into Paradise.
    I've been meaning to pick up some Michael Palin…just too many books.


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