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It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love books and travel. Travel books? Heaven.
I always wanted to be an artistic novelist type, scribbling away on a cafe table on a city street and dreaming profound thoughts. Most of my favourite books are novels, and my dog is a girl named Scout after the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, as I have matured I realise I’m very much the non-fiction type. This should have been obvious from a cursory glance through my bookshelves. Give me history, science, memoir, essay – I love them all and soak up anything I can. I realised that the novels I love the most are those that give an insight into real life. Not necessarily at the expense of imagination, but capturing something of a real place or the human condition.
Whenever I travel, I look up books that will give me a sense of the place I’m visiting. Without months to spend in a place, a good novel or memoir can help you get under the skin of a city and feel what it is like to live there. Here are some of my favourite inspirational travel books!
For UK Amazon links, click the pictures. For US Amazon, click the titles!
1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
“Um, okay, what?” I hear you ask. So it’s not a traditional road trip diary or a story of a naive ingenue who moves abroad. But I defy anyone not to be filled with the backpacking spirit as they follow Arthur Dent across the galaxy in his dressing gown.
We all need the mantra “DON’T PANIC” sometimes. Who wouldn’t love instant translation in your ear via the Babel Fish? And it reminds us that we’re fine as long as we know where our towel is.
2. The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom by Alexander McCall Smith
This trilogy of books about an academically competent but otherwise bumbling professor provides a distinctive perspective on travel. This expert on Portuguese irregular verbs visits a few exotic places on his travels, including Goa, Venice, Tuscany and Colombia.
I have kept this book on my Kindle for years despite having read it many times as it is the antidote to travel stresses. I’ve had to put it down to catch my breath because I was laughing so hard.
3. Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
If nothing else, you could interpret this as a cautionary tale against making drunken bets. Tony Hawks bets that the people of Ireland will get him to the corners of the island as a hitchhiker – with a fridge in tow. The resulting adventure has its madcap moments and pathos, as he deals with quirky encounters, frustrations, and unexpected celebrity as a radio presenter takes him under his wing.
4. America Unchained by Dave Gorman
Frustrated by the facelessness of corporate venues, British writer and comedian Dave Gorman (my preferred passionate PowerPoint presenter) decides that seeing the real America is best done avoiding the big chain stores. And that’s where it gets tricky. Hampered by an ever-changing documentary project, a car that doesn’t really have the road trip spirit, and the difficulty of finding family run fuel stations in remote regions, he nevertheless manages to contemplate modern America and challenge his own preconceptions. Like the perfect road trip, it’s as much about the journey as the destination. May contain mild peril, hilariously righteous anger, and protest burgers.
5. Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 by Edward Paice
If you find yourself on one of Lisbon’s many hills, looking down on its Baixa district, you can see the path of the tsunami that tore the city apart in 1755. Following a devastating offshore earthquake, the ruins of the city burned as the citizens fled, only to be hit by an even worse disaster when the Atlantic overwhelmed the long and narrow lower city. The signs of the earthquake are everywhere, even today: the ruined Convento do Carmo towers above the grid system that was ploughed through the rubble.
The disaster cast long cultural shadows, too. The debate about why the people of Lisbon suffered so appallingly led to the downfall of Leibniz’s claim that this is the “best of all possible worlds”, in the backlash to religious pamphlets that claimed God’s vengeance. It culminated in Voltaire’s picaresque novel Candide (UK/US), satirising these beliefs in a blaze of righteous Enlightenment ridicule. Meanwhile, the Inquisition looked for heretics to scapegoat. This book covers all of that in depth without becoming tedious. When you’ve finished you’ll understand Lisbon’s crucial place in modern Europe far better and wonder why this influential event seems so obscure.
6. Up the Creek: An Amazon Adventure by John Harrison
The book recounts the author’s expeditions into the most obscure parts of the Amazon, encountering animals, malaria, and the occasional odd travel companion. Definitely not a relaxing holiday. But the amazing thing is that as I read it, I began to understand the compulsion to just go. While I am several light years and a bionic surgery away from setting off up the Amazon in a canoe, I think this book made me braver. And that’s the best recommendation a traveller can offer.
7. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
And back to fiction! Graham Greene is possibly my favourite writer of all time. He’s never fussy but nor is he quite as spare as Hemingway, for example. He has the spirit of a reporter but his characters have fleshed out interior lives and he asks deep questions.
The Quiet American takes us to 1950s Saigon, in the last days of French colonial Indochina. You have a weary protagonist and his increasingly difficult acquaintance with a young idealist, the quiet American of the title. It has bags of atmosphere and is a great cautionary tale for well-meaning travellers. How much chaos can a bit of privilege and a lot of ignorance cause?
8. Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill
Colin Cotterill is best known for his Dr Siri books (UK/US), set in 1970s Laos. However, my favourite books of his are these hilarious books about Jimm Juree and her family. She’s an ambitious crime journalist who has to move from Chiang Mai with her family to a tiny fishing village on the Thai cost. Of course, in this sleepy backwater, she encounters crimes a-plenty…
Yes, it’s written by an ex-pat who lives in Thailand, but it’s a pleasure to read an English-language novel that has a lead character who’s actually local. And the books just get better and funnier – by the time we got to the magnificently titled Grandad There’s a Head on the Beach (UK/US) I was on a plane, snorting my way from Hong Kong to Istanbul.
9. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is probably my favourite living travel writer. He is responsible for some modern classics, such as his epic Silk Road adventure In Xanadu (UK/US). I thoroughly recommend all of his travelogues, but the one that excited me the most was this one.
In Nine Lives, he dedicates each chapter to recounting the story of a religious person and their experience of life. The stories are unique but representative and illuminate the wider context of Indian religious life and society. The clash of East and West, modernity and tradition form the backbone of the book. It is an exercise in empathy, with completely alien concepts and acts falling into place as the author delves into themes of hardship and transcendence. He treats each subject with respect, letting their voice come through. I was especially moved by the story of people alienated from society finding their own community in the unlikely setting of a rubbish dump.
10. Pole to Pole by Michael Palin
If I could be anyone when I grow up (like that’s going to happen) I’d probably want to be Michael Palin. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that he’s personally responsible for my wanderlust and my love of nonfiction. And if we ever meet I’m going to tell him that, just as I did in a conversation I dreamed/hallucinated on a train through the Slovenian Alps in 2007.
With humour and insight, his travel diaries are far more than just a companion piece to his TV series. They are all wonderful, but my favourite for going beyond what you see on screen is Pole to Pole. He really digs into the joys and frustrations of long-term travel, and this is one of his most varied journeys, following the line of longitude that covers the most land.
11. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafón
Ah, Barcelona. There’s a lot of classic Spanish Civil War literature, but it’s the post-war setting of this novel that really stuck with me. It takes place in the old centre of Barcelona in the years after the Second World War. The characters are living with the shadows of the civil war, but it is the atmosphere as much as the plot that gripped me. I didn’t realise it when I planned my first trip there, but my hotel was on the same street as the protagonist’s home! Walking the same streets with the novel still in my head was an experience. I can’t possibly do it justice but if you are even thinking about going to Barcelona, read this book. Do it now. I’ll wait.
So there we have it. I’m sure this won’t be my last book round-up, but those would be my eleven top choices. What are yours?
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