Travel books are our business. It's our job to make sure you've got the information and opinions you need while on a weekend getaway, a business trip, a family vacation. Truth be told, though, we think some of the best books for travel have very little to do with the more practical information found in guidebooks. We find that the best travel reading moves the reader beyond the tangible aspects of a place and into the realm of its spirit. I'm referring to those books that put us in touch with the soul of a place.
Our passions for the page run the gamut -- literature, history, poetry -- you name it. Some books remind us of places we've been, prompting exclamations like "Ooh! I've been there!" Others excite us for an impending journey to a historical city, or prompt us to plan a trip to that strange small town we read about in an obscure novel. Reading a good book about our destination can make it come alive. Sometimes a place -- be it a snow-swept countryside, a tropical island, a booming city, or even a local coffee shop -- acts merely as a backdrop for characters in a story; other times the destination becomes a character itself. The best books reveal this character slowly, peeling back the faÂ¿ades, past which the average tourist might not see, showing you more than a glimpse of scenery here and there. The best travel books provoke the essence and importance of place.
There's so much reading to be done about so many places. But that's the beauty of reading: You can do it at your own speed, it's cheap, and, really, you don't even have to leave the house to enjoy it. So whether you're an armchair traveler or a globetrotter, we're sure you can journey to many new destinations when reading the right book. Take a look at our recommendations below. We hope they'll inspire to you to travel, whatever kind of journey you seek.
Books That Take Me Down Under (and Elsewhere)
- Several years ago, while exploring Australia, one of my travel buddies recommended Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist (HarperSanFrancisco; 1998). After finishing it in less than two days, I was as convinced as he was that this is the book to read while traveling. This thin paperback, small enough to carry in any bag, tells a riveting fable about following your dreams. It's a simply stated story, containing ideas complex enough to inspire a journey of any length and spark countless conversations. And if you finish it too quickly, it's a good one to read again -- and again, before passing it along to another traveler.
A few more good choices for reading in, or before visiting, these particular places: Australia, In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson (Broadway; 2001); China, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial; 2002); Mongolia, Hearing Birds Fly, by Louisa Waugh (Abacus; 2004); Africa, Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller (Random House; 2003); India, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by Rachel Manija Brown (Rodale Books; 2005). -- Jennifer Anmuth
Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon (Random House; 1984)
- Don't read Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon (Random House; 1984) if you can't abide strangers staring at you as you stifle a guffaw or wheeze in public, trying to maintain your demeanor as you commute. Two fiendishly clever, somewhat dissolute journalists -- one a natural history writer, the other a Poet Laureate and war correspondent -- go to Borneo to attempt to locate an endangered white rhino. Actually, the rhino has very little to do with the book, which starts out with a daunting list of jungle perils:
"Powerful as your scholarly instincts may be, there is no matching the strength of that irrational desire to find a means of keeping your head on your shoulders; of retaining your frontal appendage in its accustomed place; of barring 1,700 different species of parasitic worm from your bloodstream and Wagler's pit viper from just about anywhere; of removing small, black, wild-boar ticks from your crutch with a minimum of discomfort (you do it with Sellotape); of declining to wear a globulating necklace of leeches all day long; of sidestepping amoebic and bacillary dysentery, yellow and blackwater and dengue fevers, malaria, cholera, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis, tuberculosis and the crocodile (thumbs in its eyes, if you have time, they say)."
Author Redmond O'Hanlon signs himself and James Fenton into spy training to prepare for the trip. And the romp continues from there, getting better and better as they go deeper and deeper into the wilderness. It's a buddy movie bound into a book. With one of the most horrific descriptions of butterflies ever! -- Naomi Black
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (Harper Perennial; 1998)
- Reading Paul Bowles is always a dangerous proposition for me. His essays always inspire wanderlust, so I have to read him only when preparing for or leaving on an extended vacation. A particular favorite is The Sheltering Sky, which makes a perfect travel companion for anywhere in the Maghreb. A trek through Morocco or Tunisia simply isn't complete without a dog-eared copy bouncing around your luggage. -- Marc Nadeau
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick (Random House; 2001)
- I dipped into Adam Gopnick's Paris to the Moon on a flight to Paris and finished it during a weeklong trip there last winter. Engaging though Gopnick's account of his move to Paris with his wife and son is, I was too distracted by the city's many sights to devour the book all in one sitting. My slowness, though, proved to be a good thing, because it allowed Gopnick's experiences in the city to enfold organically, along with my own discoveries. To name just one example, I coincidentally read the chapter about two neighboring cafes, the Café de Flore (172 bd. St-Germain, 6e; tel. 01-45-48-55-26) and Les Deux Magots (6 place St-Germain-des-Prés, 6e; tel. 01-45-48-55-25), just after lunching at the Café de Flore one afternoon. Imagine my amusement, then, when I found out that I had happened upon the more fashionable of the two: whereas Gopnick elaborates on how unfashionable Les Deux Magots is, I had picked Café de Flore because it looked less chic than Les Deux Magots. Such happenstance left me with a newfound appreciation for the vagaries of Parisian café culture, and, more importantly, with greater insight into what the city does and doesn't consider trendy.
This trendy factor brings me to the real payoff of reading Paris to the Moon -- it steered me to appreciate the city as would a local, rather than a tourist. By deftly intertwining the experiences of being a parent with that of learning one's way around a new city, Gopnick makes the city seem infinitely less dependent on fashion; he transforms the city into more of a place to inhabit than to visit. At the start of his book, Gopnick quotes Henry James, who said that Americans "are too apt to think that Paris is the celestial city." Ultimately, if Paris to the Moon made Paris a little less celestial for me, it also made the city that much more rewarding. -- Jen Reilly
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (Avon, 1998)
- Neverwhere (Avon; 1998), a fantasy novel by comic book writer Neil Gaiman, is about a businessman, Richard Mayhew, who crosses over into a different plane of existence after helping a woman who is bleeding on a London street. Trapped in "London Below," a world that exists in the London Undergound, Mayhew struggles to get back to his normal life. The book takes you through the London Underground stops while creating a magical world that exists in the shadows of London. -- Monique Rivera
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2001)
- If you're going to one of those insular, all-inclusive resorts on the coast of the Dominican Republic, Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2001) is not the book for you. The novel is ill-suited to recumbent poolside reading, and provides no tropical escapism. But if you're a traveler who wants to understand the country that exists beyond the tourist-brochure clichés, then you should definitely read this striking work by one of Latin America's most daring writers.
One can't hope to get any sense of the Dominican Republic -- its people and its politics -- without at least a basic historical awareness of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. At the heart of Vargas Llosa's novel is Trujillo, in his final days, as well the Dominicans who killed him. The story is necessarily replete with the violence and corruption that marked the regime. But for all the spectacle, it's the author's ability to humanize the participants -- including Trujillo -- that makes this an important literary book. Any second-rate wordsmith can describe the Caribbean Sea, but how many can do so through the eyes of one of Latin America's most ruthless dictators? Vargas Llosa has a profound understanding of Dominican politics; he also knows that history is the sum of individual choices, which are driven by an ineffable mix of whim and calculation.
Look around Santo Domingo, the capital, after you've read The Feast of the Goat. You'll recognize the picturesque Malecón, where Trujillo took his evening walks; the 16th-century Torre del Homenaje, used as a jail for Trujillo's enemies; and the Hotel Jaragua which was built during Trujillo's regime and renovated in 1989. Most of all, though, you'll recognize the Dominicans themselves: proud and spirited. And now that democracy has taken hold, don't be surprised to hear more than a few conversations about politics. -- Matthew Brown
Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton
- When I was a little girl (and I was a very strange child), I somehow got hold of a copy of Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels (Bobs Merrill; 1960). Originally published in the 1920s, it was a book full of first-person accounts of travels to strange and mysterious lands: he climbed to the top of the Taj Majal, swam across the Hellespont, and (I found out later to my great dismay) was lost at sea while attempting to sail a Chinese junk from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
This was about the time I found out that the Pacific (probably) claimed Amelia Earhart, and came to the conclusion that while exploring might be a dangerous business, it was certainly exciting. And now all these years later, here I am editing travel guides. Coincidence? Well, yes. I originally started out as a sportswriter. But the idea of planning a trip to somewhere based on something I'd read was planted very early, and I've enjoyed many trips suggested by a book, song, story, or simply the need for a challenging adventure. After reading East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart (Da Capo Press; 1999), by Susan Butler (the title is a nod to fellow '30s aviatrix Beryl Markham's remarkable memoir West With the Night), led me to Atchison, Kansas for the annual Amelia Earhart festival (www.atchisonhistory.org/AEFest). Earhart's presence is still reflected in the streets (they haven't been repaved since a deaf-mute bricklayer laid them by hand in the early 20th century) that she strode, her lovingly restored childhood home, and in a blue light on top of the bridge that's always on at night to guide her home. There's also an Earhart earthwork (best seen from a plane). Atchison also hosts a railroad museum, where "The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fa" is always playing, a Benedictine monastery, where you are welcome to join the brothers for vespers, and a still-marked part of Lewis & Clark's trail. -- Kathleen Warnock
Can't Pick Just One
- I'm not sure whether I read about a place as an excuse to travel there or if I travel to a place so that I have a good reason to read about it. For me, travel and reading are inextricably linked. Pick up these books if you're interested in Gettysburg, Venice, or Spain.
It was only after I visited the Civil War battle site in Gettysburg that I read Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (Modern Library; 2004). The historical fiction account, detailing the bloody battle and its major players (Longstreet, Lee, and Chamberlain, among others), reveals the deep personal sides to the battle. Previously, I'd thought I had no interest in reading about war, but the novel has tremendous emotional resonance and has stuck with me for years.
For a beautiful and abstract view of Venice, look no further than Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (Harvest Books; 1978). In it, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of the many and varied cities he's seen. It soon becomes clear, though, that each of the fantastical places he describes is Venice.
For a good political history read, George Orwell's account of his enlistment in the fight against Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War is beautifully rendered in his Homage to Catalonia (Harvest Books; 1969). Detailing his time at the front as well as his days in the street fight in Barcelona, Orwell's memoir is concise, elegant, and compelling. -- Cate Latting
Can't Pick Just One, Redux
- I grew up in a family of compulsive readers. We read doggedly at all hours of the day, even at mealtimes, when my mother would struggle to keep the conversation going. While other families gathered around the television, we bent over books.
Today, I can't fall asleep at night unless I've lulled myself to sleep with the printed word. And my biggest fear when I travel isn't getting lost or sick or losing my passport; it's running out of books. When I traveled around the world in 1993, I brought War and Peace (Modern Library; 2002) with me, which I thought would last a good part of my 6-month trip. Alas, I finished it in Australia, three countries in.
These days, my travel is pretty much limited to the daycare/job route, so more than ever I have to rely on books to explore exotic destinations. To revisit New Zealand, I pick up Keri Hulme's quietly devastating The Bone People (Louisiana State University Press; 2005). Another heartwrencher, J.M Coetze's Disgrace (Penguin; 2000) examines the complexities of racial relations in post-Apartheid South Africa. Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Anchor Books; 2003), a mystery series set in Botswana, is as light and satisfying as a warm popover, and the most satisfying revelations have to do with the intricacies of the human spirit. Unless you are traveling to Congo-Kinshasa while reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (Harper Torch; 2003), you may be startled to look up and discover your actual surroundings. This intensely evocative story details a missionary family's experiences in the Belgian Congo during that country's tragic struggle for independence.
If you prefer nonfiction, The Fatal Shore (Vintage; 1988) by Robert Hughes, describes Australia's founding in graphic, brutal detail. Travelers to India should pick up Freedom at Midnight (Harper Collins; 1997) by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which describes India's bloody and prolonged struggle for independence from England.
If you're traveling with young children to New York, Washington DC or Boston, psych them up with the You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum series (Dial; 1998). (The National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts are also available.) In these wordless stories, Robin Glasser's beautiful line drawings depict a wayward balloon drifting past well-known masterpieces of art and city landmarks. Older kids will enjoy E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Aladdin; 1998), the book that started my life-long love affair with the Ancient Egyptian collection at the Met.
Just be careful; you may never have another dinnertime conversation with your family. -- Margot Weiss
Talk about books that inspire you to travel on our Cultural Immersion Message Boards today.