Forget movies! Books are the best way to stoke the fire of your wanderlust.
Books have saved my sanity on dozens of occasions when I’ve been travelling long, boring stretches of road, and I always turn to a good travel book any time I feel my feet start to itch (metaphorically, that is).
Books don’t require you to have any special electronic equipment (unless you’re using an e-reader), you don’t need electricity to read, and you can trade them with fellow travellers when you’re on the road. Sure, they take up space in your pack, and sure the weight of them starts to add up quick if you’ve got more than one with you. But when you’re stuck on a Greyhound bus from Thunder Bay to Sudbury, Ontario, or trapped during a monsoon with no electricity in a Koh Kong guesthouse, you’ll be happy to have something to pass the time that doesn’t rely on an electronic device.
And so, in no particular order, here are ten of my all-time favourite travel (and travel-adjacent) books:
The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
and The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux
I’d argue that Paul Theroux is quite possibly the greatest living travel writer. He’s an absolutely prolific author, and has released something like eighteen travel books, on top of an even bigger corpus of novels. But for me, his first two travel books are the standouts.
The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975, recounts Theroux’s four month odyssey by train in 1973, from London all the way through the Middle East (he passes through Europe to Istanbul on the famous Orient Express), India, Southeast Asia, and Japan, before segueing into his return trip home via the nearly 10,000 kilometer long Trans-Siberian Railway. While the book is couched as an exploration of the train lines Theroux takes, it is just as much an exploration of the people with whom he interacts while riding the rails. The Great Railway Bazaar is pretty much required reading for anyone planning a train trip in Europe or Asia, if only so that they can remark on how much, or how little, has changed in 40+ years.
The Old Patagonian Express, published in 1979, is Theroux’s follow-up. Starting from his town in Massachusetts, he travels by train down to Texas, through Mexico and Central America, to Panama, and then (after skipping the impassable Darién Gap) he carries on from Colombia down to the spine of South America to Argentine Patagonia. As with The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express explores the nature of train travel in the countries Theroux visits, as well as his interactions with other travellers and the locals he meets. This is the perfect book to reach for once you’ve read The Great Railway Bazaar and been left wanting more.
Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
I saw the movie adaptation when I was twelve or so, and am ashamed to say that it took me thirteen years to get around to reading the book. As is often the case, Seven Years in Tibet is better in book form (for one thing, it lacks the unfortunate attempt at a German accent). The book is Heinrich Harrer’s autobiographical retelling of his 13 years spent in South Asia, from his aborted mountaineering expedition on Nanga Parbat in 1939, to his capture by the British at the outbreak of World War II, to his daring escape to Tibet with countryman Peter Aufschnaiter in 1944. After reaching Lhasa in 1946, he became a tutor to the Dalai Lama, and remained there until 1951. The first half, about Harrer’s escape, is an epic story through-and-through, while the second half, about his life in Tibet, is a beautiful snapshot of the region, its people, and its culture at the time.
Badlands, by Tony Wheeler
Written by the founder of Lonely Planet, Badlands is Tony Wheeler’s first-hand account of travel through a number of countries that don’t exactly top most travellers’ destination lists; countries like Afghanistan, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. In each country, Tony captures an engaging snapshot of his interactions with the locals, and some history on how those nations got to where they are.
I do find it weird that Cuba’s included, given that it’s the fifth most visited country by Canadian tourists, but then I realize that Wheeler’s mostly writing for an American audience (especially evident with the outdated “Axis of Evil” in the subtitle). In spite of that, it’s still a very interesting read.
Video Night in Kathmandu, by Pico Iyer
Right up there with Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer is one of the preeminent travel writers alive today. When a friend of mine learned of my interest in travel, nearly fifteen years ago, he lent me his copy of Video Night in Kathmandu. I read through it so many times, the cover fell off (before anyone asks, I did buy my friend a new copy). The book consists of short vignettes of Iyer’s travels throughout Asia in the 1980s, as he investigates the effects of American pop-culture slowly seeping in to wildly disparate locales. Every so often, I’ll re-read one of the segments (particularly the one dealing with sex-tourism in Thailand) when I feel that I’m starting to lose perspective on the damage that tourism, and the conspicuous consumption associated with it, can cause.
The Beach, by Alex Garland
The book that launched a million trips. Written in 1996 by a young Alex Garland, The Beach revolves around its protagonist Richard’s attempt to escape the trail blazed by thousands of travellers before him. Richard’s wish is granted when a mysterious Scot gives him a map to an isolated, near-inaccessible beach. The beach, and the community that calls it home, winds up not being quite what Richard expected, and even a life in an idyllic community like this one is little different from the escapism that spurs the hordes of travellers and tourists they are running from. Even paradise has its problems. Besides that important lesson, it also helps that The Beach is just a well-written, thoroughly engaging read right through.
Into The Wild, by Jon Krakauer
Like The Beach, Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild has influenced a generation of young vagabonds. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp”, who, immediately after finishing university in 1990, drove, hitchhiked, and train-hopped his way across the US for over two years, before finally hitchhiking up to the Stampede Trail in Alaska in 1992. It’s a great read that balances the romanticism of a life on the road with a pragmatic warning of the dangers of risk-taking and the hubris of youth (I worry that readers my age and younger miss that part).
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
In 1925, Royal Geographical Society explorer Percy Fawcett set out on his eight and final expedition in the Amazon; his goal was to find a lost city he’d dubbed “Z” hiding somewhere in the redoubtable Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He and his two companions disappeared with no concrete evidence as to what happened to them. The Lost City of Z documents David Grann’s investigation into Fawcett’s disappearance, and whether or not the lost city he was searching for ever even existed. Grann’s writing style is super engaging, and the book really digs deep into the psychology of adventurers and explorers like Fawcett. This book should be required reading for every would-be Livingstone or Shackleton.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Essentially the classic road book, On the Road took a long, torturous path to getting published. Written in 1951 from a series of notebooks Kerouac filled in the 1940s, it wasn’t published until 1957, and the publisher forced Kerouac to massively revise his draft, including giving pseudonyms to everyone mentioned in the book. On the Road is written from the perspective of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) as he bums his way across the country and back over the course of years, and his interactions with friends like Dean Moriarty (actually Neal Cassady), Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), Damion (Lucien Carr) and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg). I first read it when I was on an epic road-trip of my own, and Kerouac’s exploits helped put the tough time I was having in perspective.
Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
Long before Ranulph Fiennes set out to find the “Atlantis of the Sands“, there was Wilfred Thesiger. Arabian Sands covers the five years he spent on the Arabian Peninsula between 1945 and 1950, with special attention to his two epic crossings of the Rub al’ Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter; the largest continuous sand desert in the world. It also details the hardships he and his team faced, including lack of food and water, and inhospitable locals. Arabian Sands is epic in the purest sense of the word.