The top travel books

What are the best travel books of the century? The readers respond.


Don George
May 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My column last week on the top 10 travel books of the century inspired dozens of eloquent e-mails from readers recommending their own favorite travel books. About two-thirds of these titles were familiar to me, but another third were books I had never even heard of before. So I have decided to share these riches, devoting this week's column to your fellow readers' excellent and intriguing suggestions. If these inspire you to nominate your own cherished travel books, e-mail them to me.

I'll begin with recommended books that I have already read -- many of which I contemplated including in my own top 10 list. I'll include readers' comments where appropriate.

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Four books were nominated by two readers apiece:

"Desert Solitaire," by Edward Abbey. "This is a fiery,
passionate evocation of the beauty of the Southwestern desert. The book is balanced almost perfectly between the author's
disgust at the perpetual drive to develop and commodify wild nature and
the deep stillness and calm created by immersion in the desert landscape.
There are many books of this sort (personal essays describing some natural
setting, with an environmental/preservation bent), but along with John
Muir, this is one of the first and best. Abbey never takes himself too seriously and lets his own ornery, eccentric personality shine through,
which puts him a leg up on all the solemn Gaia-heads eager to lecture us about the Earth."

"Blue Highways," by William Least Heat Moon. "A Native American liberal arts
college professor loses his job and his wife and sets out in his white Ford
van with $900 to drive a circle around the United States without getting on
the interstate, driving down the highways marked in blue on the map, in
search of five-calendar cafes with signs that say air-conditioning in
letters dripping with stylized icicles. His encounters with the people he meets, almost always cordial and generous -- which surely says something
about the author's demeanor -- lead to thoughts about how things are and were, how they are changing, along with tidbits of history and lore."

"Road Fever," by Tim Cahill. "The rollicking tale of a mega-long-distance driving competition, told with Cahill's signature style and sense of humor and humanity."

"Seven Years in Tibet," by Heinrich Harrer. "Yes, it was made into a
movie, and it lost a lot in translation. And yes, Harrer may not be the most
admirable person in many ways, but this is still a wonderfully sensitive
book about travels into the unknown. His friendship with the Dalai Lama
and his descriptions of postwar Tibet are well worth rereading."

Here are more books recommended by readers that I have also read and would heartily recommend.

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Let's start with two classics:

"Book of Marvels," by Richard Haliburton. "I was given this book as a child and my parents read me to sleep nearly every night with the
wonderful stories of exotic places and cultures in places I could only dream of. I'll never forget the image of Haliburton throwing himself
into a Mayan sacrificial well to see what it must have felt like to be a sacrificial victim. Long out of print and probably somewhat
ecologically incorrect, this book still contains some of the best examples of adventure travel writing that you'll ever find."

"Seven Pillars of Wisdom," by T.E.
Lawrence.
"Some wouldn't call it a travel book -- Lawrence of Arabia
seems to transcend the status of tourist. But it is. After all, isn't
the deepest desire of the traveler to participate in the world he
visits, not simply to observe it? Don't we secretly wish to live out
the fantasies inspired in us by the cultures we visit? Lawrence, who arrived in Arabia as an unknown British academic and left it as the
greatest warlord of the desert Bedouins, surely fulfilled these desires as much as anyone ever has. Most travelogues are simply the record of a
summer fling with some exotic land; Lawrence's encompasses all the stages of the classic tragic love affair -- discovery, seduction, conquest and
betrayal. Lawrence was the last and greatest of the British imperial
travelers ... men who sought to merge with
the lands they visited."

Here are some more contemporary adventures:

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"The Man Who Walked Through Time," by Colin Fletcher. "This book is a great combination of the story of an epic backpacking trip as well as an
almost John McPhee-type narration of the natural history of the Grand Canyon. A really great read!"

"Shooting the Boh," by Tracy Johnston. "This is a wonderful book one cannot put down. When it came out, it was passed from friend to friend
to friend in the same way that people passed around, say, 'The Right Stuff' by
Tom Wolfe. If you haven't yet read it, you're in for a treat. Just don't start it
late at night -- you'll be in Borneo until the wee hours."

"Tracks," by Robyn Davidson. "This is the great
story of Davidson's trek across Australia with camels and a National Geographic photographer. She wanted to go with just camels, but lacked the funds, and National Geographic offered her cash. But there's always a catch with money -- she had to
go with NG's photographer. The travel stuff is top-notch here, but there's also a fascinating story as she falls in love with the photographer."

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"Riding the Iron Rooster," by Paul Theroux. "'The Great Railway Bazaar' is of course a great travel
book, and one of my personal favorites. I'd be willing to bet, however, that
100 years from now people will prefer 'Riding the Iron Rooster' for the insights that it has to offer into how China got to be the economic, military
and diplomatic superpower that it's going to be in the next century. (If you want a book that does something similar for the United States, read Twain's 'Life on the Mississippi.') One of the things that I like most about Theroux is the lack of sentimentality in his books. I find a lot of travel writing -- especially about Asia and especially about Western Buddhists in Asia -- both
self-indulgent and self-pitying. In Theroux's descriptions of the individual personalities he meets in China -- especially the translator Cherry Blossom, and the irritating Han couple he shares a car with on a trip to Tibet -- [Theroux] somehow manages to throw light on China and the Chinese
without stereotyping them or reducing his subjects to metaphors, which strikes me as a difficult trick to pull off."

And one offbeat nomination:

"The People's Guide to Mexico," by Carl Franz. "Unlike normal guidebooks, 'The People's Guide to Mexico' doesn't break the country up into regions and locations with lists of hotels and restaurants. Unlike traditional travel literature, it's not a linear narrative that one reads like a novel. You
can open it anywhere (it's over 600 pages long) and immediately become engrossed in a discussion of the anatomy of a tortilla, or an illustration of common Mexican hand signals. Franz brackets the cultural information with stories from his own travels, all of which are hilarious and most of
which contain further insights into Mexican society. In one episode, he walks into a restaurant for lunch and ends staying for a month, employed,
and even adopted, by the family that owns it. An anthropologist would call this participant-observation, but to Franz it's just doing what comes naturally. Franz can break through a century of American preconceptions in
a description of one bus ride or a primer on translating Mexican bumper
stickers."

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Here are books recommended by readers that I haven't read but have been meaning to read:

"The Serpent and the Rainbow," by Wade Davis. "Wade Davis set out to
discover the truth about Haitian zombies. He learned (and wrote about)
an incredible mix of science and culture. This is a great travel book that reads almost like a mystery."

"Cities of Gold," by Douglas Preston. "Preston set out to retrace the route of Coronado on his famous expedition in search of the fabled Seven
Cities of Gold. Rich in description of the landscapes of the desert Southwest, the book also provides an excellent historical introduction
into the Spanish exploration of the Southwest, the Native American cultures there and the ranchers, miners and Indians who share the area today."

"North of South," by Shiva Naipaul. "For those people who have had their fill of colonial memoirs or tourist guides that claim a proprietary interest in Kenya, I nominate Shiva
Naipaul's 'North of South' as among the most telling -- and most
perceptive -- travel books of the 20th century."

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"My Family and Other Animals," by Gerald Durrell. "Gerald Durrell was not the writer his big brother Lawrence was, but he wrote
with a sparkling wit, and the vivid pictures he renders of an idyllic Corfu before it was destroyed by rampant tourism are well worth going to."

"The Courage of Turtles," "Walking the
Dead Diamond River" or "Notes from the Century Before," all by Edward Hoagland.

"An Empire Wilderness," "Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History" or "The Ends of the Earth," all by Robert D. Kaplan.

"Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan," by John Lloyd Stephens.

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"In Ethiopia With a Mule," Dervla Murphy.

"Iron and Silk," by Mark Salzman.

"Travels in Tartary," by Peter Fleming.

And finally, here are the books that I've never even heard of -- but that sound worth searching for:

"Lascaux and Carnac," by Glyn
Daniel (Lutterworth Press, London, 1955).
"If you can find a copy, 'Lascaux and Carnac' deserves a review. Daniel, an
English archaeologist, writes about the two most important sites in
France, their importance [and the surrounding] countryside, which he does on foot or by
bike, where to stay and what to eat and drink. Delightful."

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"Fantastic Invasion," by the Englishman Patrick Marnham. "There has not been as incisive a book about Africa since his. Written in the '70s, possibly out of print."

"Sailing Alone Around the World," by Joshua Slocum. "Actually, I think that this book was published in 1898, so I guess it's disqualified, but
it's such a great book that it really needs to be on the list."

"Dove," by Robin Graham. "The story of a 14(?)-year-old boy who sailed around the world in the '60s or '70s. Sometimes it's good to take
another look at the world as it can be seen by the young -- especially this exceptionally talented young writer."

"Four Against Everest," by Woodrow Wilson Sayre. "Probably out of print, this book is by the grandson of President Woodrow Wilson. Sayre had
recently graduated from Harvard when he and several friends decided to climb Mt. Everest by the then-unclimbed North Face. Totally unprepared, they actually did pretty well even though they got nowhere near the summit. The book is great for its descriptions of how travel
can be about doing something just for the fun of it."

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"Miles from Nowhere : A Round the World Bicycle Adventure," by Barbara
Savage.
"This is arguably the best bicycling travel book ever written.
The book narrates the circumnavigation of the world by Savage and
her husband. Fun and wonderful to read."

"High Albania," by Edith Durham. "This is the classic of 20th century travel writing in the Balkans, and was invaluable to me in
my preparation for, enjoyment of and reflecting upon my two years working in Albania."

"The Peaks of Shala," by Rose Wilder Lane. "This is another excellent account of travel among the Albanians, also essential to me for the same reasons as 'High Albania,' namely that these two writers [Wilder Lane and Durham] lived with the
Albanians in their travels, earning respect and trust, and thus learning
respect and trust themselves. Even if they don't make your list, please read them for your own enjoyment and enlightenment. And yes, that's the
same Rose of the 'Little House' Wilders."

"A World Elsewhere," by John Manchip White. "This is a real dark horse, almost unknown. It is too relaxed and chatty to be a classic, almost certainly out of print and getting a little
dated (1970), but a delightfully pleasant read. (I have special affection for it since it was my sole companion on my first hitchhiking
trip across the Southwest.)
A supremely warm and civilized Englishman settles down in the American
Southwest after a lifetime of travel and spends 300 pages taking you through his favorite
places there. A perfect little dinner party of a book, wonderfully relaxed and conversational while managing great elegance of description at
the same time. The closing musings on the American character are terrific
-- 'the bluebird of happiness flutters perpetually ahead, and the American
flounders on after it.' If you ever see this book, snap it right up; you're in for a treat."

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"Rucksack Man," by Sebastian Snow. "The author, a genuine British weirdo, walked South America from Tierra del Fuego to Panama, solo except when Chris Bonnington flew in for a few days' company (and departed exhausted). My father gave it to me as a gag gift because I was
always backpacking about, and it's delightfully
eccentric, to the extent that I can't always decide if the self-deprecating humor is entirely deliberate or partly unintentional."

"Coming Home Crazy," by Bill Holm. "Holm is a Minnesota author, poet and college professor who spent a year living and teaching in China. His collection of essays provides
a fascinating portrait of both China and the United States. I have never really
been to China (I went to Hong Kong for a week and spent an evening in
Shenzhen, but that really doesn't count) but I spent three and a half months
studying in Nepal, and found that his experiences reflected mine to an amazing degree."

"On Foot Through Africa," by Ffyona Campbell. "It has been a few years since I've picked this one up, but I remember enjoying it very
much. I know that [Campbell] has a bit of a crazy reputation, but her story is a good one."

"By the Ionian Sea," by George Gissing. "First published in 1901. A classic!"

And last but certainly not least -- a real eyebrow-raiser:

"Motorcycle Diaries," by Che Guevara. "Not a great book per se, but absolutely fascinating in context."

We're on our way to compiling the globe's greatest virtual travel library. Thanks for all your excellent notes and suggestions. I welcome more!


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

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