More best books of the century

Readers recommend their favorite works of travel fiction and nonfiction.


Don George
June 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Five weeks ago I devoted this column to my own list of the top 10 travel books of the century. A week later I published readers' responses to that list, an eclectic and eloquent set of recommendations. In the weeks since then, the e-mails have continued to arrive -- heartily manifesting your ongoing love affair with great travel writing and the tremendous richness of travel literature that has been produced in the past century. So I'm devoting this week's column to more of your suggestions.

One reader sent in a compelling mini-tale to accompany her recommendation of Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" (which was nominated by a number of readers):

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"I just finished reading through your list of top travel books of the
century and was surprised to see no mention of 'The Sheltering Sky,'
written by Paul Bowles shortly after World War II. I first learned of 'The Sheltering Sky' in a review of Bernardo
Bertolucci's dreadful 1990 film version of the novel. Fortunately, I
stayed clear of the movie (trust me, skip it), but decided to take the book
with me on a driving trip through the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The setting was perfect, and I was absolutely mesmerized. I stayed up
reading until after midnight every night, feeling the hair stand up on the
back of my neck as I turned the pages.

"For me, Bowles' story presents the
ultimate peril that (just maybe) underlies every travel adventure: the
possibility of traveling to a place from which you cannot return, either
physically or psychologically. By the time I reached the last page, I was
wondering if I ever dared to travel again (but, of course, I do, and will
always do so).

"Now, whenever my travel plans take a turn for the uncertain, I joke with my
traveling companions about the possibility of the 'sheltering sky' that may
loom over events to come. Please, put this strange but thrilling story on
your list, so that others may read it and form their own opinions. Thanks
for the opportunity to comment!"

Another reader sent in a detailed synopsis/review of his favorite:

"As a Monty Python fan, I would naturally go for 'Around the World in 80 Days,' by Michael Palin. But the book/video series has stayed with me these past 10 years, and has burrowed
itself into a part of my memory that few other things have.

"First, there's the sheer momentum of the journey. The 80-day deadline
gave Palin's journey tension. Will he make it or won't he? The sheer
complexity of traveling around the world is brought home.

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"Second, there's the variety of experiences Palin encountered, from the
comforts of the Orient Express, to the train journey through China, to
spending a week on a dhow run by a crew of Arabs who did not speak
English. Palin never settles down in one place long enough to get a
great grasp of the local cultures, but we get enough of a taste to
understand just how varied they are. One particular example: The owner of
the dhow prepared for the arrival of Palin and camera crew by washing
down his boat not just with water, but with drinking water.

"Third, on repeated viewings/readings, it becomes apparent that there's
a second story going on -- the making of the series itself. While
the video likes to show Michael as going around the world by himself, the
truth is that he's accompanied by at least five people and the influence
and money of the BBC. One begins to wonder just what scenes were
recreated for the camera, and discrepancies can be noted between the
video and the book. It becomes apparent that some stories were shifted
in time to accommodate the video series, among other things.

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"But the struggles of Palin and his Passepartout were real, and sometimes
things were beyond his control. The best scene in this regard is when they reach the Reform Club --
where they and Phineas Fogg began their separate journeys -- at the end of
a long day's travel that was interrupted by a bomb threat on the
Underground. They arrive only to find that the Club will not open up for them so
they can film Palin's arrival. Palin ends the series standing on the
street outside the club.

"OK, this is more a nomination for the video than the book. The
seven-tape series travels at its own pace and conveys the sense of being
there by not cramming every second with narration. The sounds bleed
through: the loud Arabic pop music played by the taxi driver on the
journey from Cairo to Suez, the sounds of men in Shanghai washing up at
a public fountain in the morning, the piano player bashing out "Sweet
Georgia Brown" on the Malibu beach. They also stretch and compress
travel time: The week-long trip on the dhow from Saudi to Bombay takes
one episode, the same length as the trip from San Diego to the finish
line.

"So, this is not a deep book or portentous read. It's amusing, which
Palin does so well. But for anyone wondering just what the world is like
outside their door, this is a fine introduction."

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Other readers' comments were less loquacious but equally enthusiastic:

"I am surprised that you omitted 'Danziger's Travels,' by Nick Danziger. The intrepid Danziger went by train, bus, hitchhiking
and foot from England to Turkey to Syria to Iran to Afghanistan to
Pakistan to China to Hong Kong in the mid-'80s.
His trip included hair-raising travels through Afghanistan in the
company of the Mujahedeen during the height of the Soviet invasion and
being one of the first Westerners to go from Pakistan to China over the
Karkoram highway."

"I am surprised that no one mentioned either Eric Hansen or Gavin Young.
Hansen has published three books (I haven't read the last one). The first is
the best: 'Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo,' published in 1989.
The second, 'Motoring With Mohammed,' is a bit uneven, but a
fascinating read about Yemen, one of the least-known places on earth,
even today.
In 'Slow Boats to China,' Gavin Young undertook a journey from Greece to
China by whatever kind of boat he could find going in the right
direction. It was difficult then, impossible nowadays. Young is a
journalist and a very entertaining writer."

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"I'm not a big fan of the genre but fell into S.J. Perlman's 'Westward Ha!,' with
illustrations by Al Hirschfeld, a hilarious and fascinating account of
these two making a grand tour in the late 1940s."

"I recommend 'Nine Pounds of Luggage,' by Maud Parrish. As a teenager
Parrish ran away from a dull marriage to the dance halls of Alaska and never
stopped wandering, traveling from China to South America, Africa, the
Middle East, the Pacific and back again, traveling for no reason other
than that she just had to. She didn't set out to be a writer and it
wasn't until late in life that she wrote down her experiences with the
help of the letters that she had sent to friends and that they had
saved. At the end of her book she's in her 60s, hoping to yet see
Afghanistan and Turkistan before her own final chapter."

"I have liked everything I have
read over the years by Lawrence Durrell. I had an
excavation near Alexandria, Egypt, in the late '70s and read 'The Alexandria
Quartet'
while there -- I still regard this as an underappreciated
literary masterpiece and one of the most successful evocations of place ever
written."

"Sir Edmund Hillary's
'High Adventure,'
his first book, is engagingly
naive and in some ways downright lousy, but it
includes his first impressions of Nepal (the year
before the famous ascent, as well as that year)
and is filled with his own warmth. Mildly self-
censored (he announced the summit of Everest
with a cheery "We knocked the bastard off" that
in the book is referred to as crude slang) and
almost as funny as Eric Newby on the subject of
meeting Great British Explorers (would they
dress for dinner?)."

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" 'Annapurna,' by Maurice Herzog, is the story of the first ascent
of any 8,000-meter peak, when they actually had to find
the mountain in order to climb it, which again is
what makes it a travel book rather than just a
climbing book. And then the climb -- which damn
near killed him."

"Robert Byron's decidedly trenchant and brilliantly witty 'The Road to
Oxiana'
is everything one might expect from an esteemed and eccentric
Oxford classmate of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. This account of his
astoundingly arduous and peril-filled trip through Iran and the more
remote reaches of Afghanistan in the "golden age" of travel is rendered
all the more poignant in the light of the author's early death in action
during WWII and the thought of what might have further emerged from his
pen.
I might also mention Norman Douglas' inimitably colorful 'Old Calabria'
and, while it is not usually classified as a travel book, Curzio
Malaparte's
tragic and bizarre journeys around WWII Europe in 'Kaputt.'"

"Charles Nicholl's 'The Creature in the Map: Sir Walter Raleigh's Quest for
El Dorado'
is impossible to classify. Part history, part biography, part
travel, it's a brilliant book."

"Simon Winchester's 'River at the Center of the World' is a good mix of
travel and historical fact/current facts."

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Other readers simply nominated their favorites without comment. Here they are, beginning with the books I am familiar with and would also enthusiastically recommend:

"The Colossus of Maroussi," by Henry Miller

"Arabian Sands," by Wilfred Thesiger

"The Travellers Tree," by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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"Into the Heart of Borneo," by Redmond O'Hanlon

"Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue," by Paul Bowles

"Under a Sickle Moon," by Peregrine Hodson

"When the Going was Good," by Evelyn Waugh

"The Old Patagonian Express," by Paul Theroux

"City of Djinns," by William Dalrymple

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"Chasing the Monsoon," by Alexander Frater

"A Walk in the Woods," by Bill Bryson

"Running in the Family," by Michael Ondaatje

"Travels With Charly," by John Steinbeck

"The Innocents Abroad," by Mark Twain

"The Solace of Open Spaces" and "Islands, the Universe, Home," by Gretel Ehrlich

"Songlines," by Bruce Chatwin

"On the Road," by Jack Kerouac

"Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer

"Holidays in Hell," by P.J. O'Rourke

"The Razor's Edge," by W. Somerset Maugham

"Arctic Dreams," by Barry Lopez

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," by Hunter S. Thompson

"The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," by Tom Wolfe

"Troutfishing in America," by Richard Brautigan

"Neither Here Nor There," by Bill Bryson

"Paris," by Julian Green

"Old Glory," by Jonathan Raban

"Death in the Afternoon," by Ernest Hemingway

"The Stones of Florence," by Mary McCarthy

And here are the readers' recommendations I need to add to my own "to be read" list:

"Sahara Unveiled," by William Langewiesche

"Impossible Vacation," by Spalding Gray

"Out West," by Dayton Duncan

"The Proving Ground," by Benedict Allen

"Savage Civilization," by Tom Harrison

"Ice!," by Tristan Jones

"Himalayan Passage," by Jeremy Schmidt

"Where the Indus Is Young" and "Full Tilt," by Dervla Murphy

"A Ride to Khiva," by Frederick Burnaby

"Soldiers of God," by Robert Kaplan

"Journey unto Bokhara," by Alexander Burnes

"Blank on the Map," by Eric Shipton

"The Canoe and the Saddle," by Frederick Winthrop

"Man-Eaters of Kumaon," by Jim Corbett

"Football Against the Enemy," by Simon Kuper

"The Power and the Glory," by Graham Greene

"Batfishing in the Rainforest," by Randy Wayne White

"The Moronic Inferno," by Martin Amis

"Mexico," by James Michener

"Winter" and "The Book of Yaak," by Rick Bass.

In addition to considerably expanding my own travel library, these suggestions reinforce my fundamental sense that readers care passionately about great travel writing -- the kind of writing that, like a certain kind of travel itself, challenges and enlarges you.

Thanks for all your letters. If these lists inspire you to share your literary discoveries with others, e-mail your nominations to me.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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