As you have probably seen from my previous book review posts, I have an interesting array of taste in books. I’ve looked online at various websites listing travel reads, and most of them don’t appeal to me. Nearly every list is the same! I guess I expected a bit more variety. Good travel writing has the ability to take you to a completely different part of the world. I’m not sure that everyone feels that experience the same. The following is a list of my best travel reads. I hope you find something that piques your interest!
Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik
Paris to the Moon is the first ex-pat book I ever read. I bought it for 50p in a second hand store in Windsor, and read it on my first Eurostar trip to Paris. It tells the story of the writer – Adam Gopnik – and his family’s time in Paris. Beautifully written, to this day, it still makes me want to live in Paris. As described by Kirkus, Gopnik, “gets a grip on the grandeur and travails of the capital’s shopping, cuisine, haute couture, and architecture, as well as French procedures for faxes, exercise, reckoning with war criminals, enjoying civilized general strikes, and arguing over “the best restaurant in the world.”
The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Gerard
This is the retelling of Captain Scott’s disastrous last attempt to reach the South Pole. Written by Apsley Cherry-Gerard, who was the youngest member of the team, he writes about his firsthand experiences as well as the diaries of his dead companions. a heavy read, but an interesting and harrowing one. I’ll never forget the killer whales eating the ponies! If you’re into Antarctic exploration, South by Shackleton is also another great travel read.
Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.
– The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry Apsley Gerard
Himalaya – Michael Palin
I received a copy of Himalaya by Michael Palin for my Year 13 Geography Prize. I didn’t know much about Michael Palin apart from his Monty Python fame. I ended up reading the book, and watching the Himalaya series. Both were fantastic. Himalaya was one of my first introductions to travel writing, and to exploring the unknown. I remember being awed by some of the sites, and it started a life long ambition to finally make it to Nepal!
Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This poetic (and slightly dreamy) account of the early days of aviation by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry takes you on a journey across Africa and beyond. He began flying, in 1926, for the airline Latécoère, opening up the first mail routes across the Sahara and the Andes. Better known as the writer of The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry wrote this adventure filled memoir before his untimely death during World War Two, when he disappeared mid-flight near Marseille.
It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Walks through Lost Paris – Leonard Pitt
Another Parisian favorite. Walks Through Lost Paris describes Paris’s urban reconstruction through four walking tours. During the Haussmann period, much of the former medieval city was destroyed to make way for the new grand boulevards. This book takes you through some of the few remaining remnants of medieval Paris, helping you to imagine the rabbit warrens of its past. This website provides a great photo essay of some of its sights.
Imperium – Ryszard Kapuscinski
Who says travel writing has to be cheerful? I picked up this book in Warsaw, and it doesn’t appear to be popular outside of Poland. Imperium begins with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s account of his hometown being invaded by the Soviets in the late 1930s. It ultimately ends fifty years later, with a massive journey that takes him from Moscow across the former USSR states, explaining the devastation each faced on the way. After visiting Georgia and Azerbaijan recently, I’ve re-read those chapters, and the book has even more meaning to me.
Rusty carcasses of ships, rotting watchtowers, deep holes which some kind of ore was once extracted. A dismal, lifeless emptiness. Not a soul anywhere, for the exhausted columns have already passed and vanished in the cold eternal fog.
– Imperium, Ryszard Kapuściński
The Beach – Alex Garland
I know, I know. This one features on every list of travel books. But it is good. Alex Garland’s The Beach tells a story of European 20-somethings who find themselves on a desert island in Asia. Apparently tired of the cookie-cutter experience available to them in the West, they attempt to create their own island paradise. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for some. To read an interesting juxtaposition of how the novel applies to our selfie-rich culture today, check out this article.
Into Thin Air – John Krakauer
Again, I like my travel books with a bit of tragedy. I have read, and re-read, Into Thin Air so many times. Formed from an essay written by John Krakauer, who was present on Everest during the tragic 1996 season, it’s a warning of what not to do when leading a deadly mountain climb. Given Krakauer’s well documented survivors-guilt over his own near miss, maybe he hoped to exorcise some of his own demons by writing Into Thin Air. Nearly every travel read list contains another book by Krakauer – Into the Wild – but I have always preferred Into Thin Air.
With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” observed Rob Hall, the leader of a commercial expedition, on his eighth tour of Mount Everest. ”The trick is to get back down alive.”
– Into Thin Air, John Krakauer
Underground Overground – Andrew Martin
I really like subway systems. I’m not even sure why. Their neat, colorful maps? The sheer ability to move people in a subterranean world? Their efficiency? Regardless, this book, describing the creation of the London Underground system, is a fascinating read. It takes you across many of the locations of the Underground, explaining how obscure suburbs of London were integrated into the city by their inclusion on the mass-transit line. Easy to read and engaging, it’s a fascinating journey back to London in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Kon-Tiki – Thor Heyderdal
In late 1936 explorer Heyerdahl set out from Norway for an island in the South Seas called Fatu Hiva. Along with a band of comrades he collected along the way, he decided to eschew modern life and see if it was possible to replicate the supposed journey of Peruvians to Polynesia. On a balsa wood raft. This isn’t a tragic travel book – they actually made it (hooray!) and cemented their place in both travel and literary history.
Pearls rarely turn up in oysters served to you on a plate; you have to dive for them.
– Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl
Atlas Obscura – Joshua Foer, Ella Morton and Dylan Thuras
This is less travel-writing and more of a guide, but it’s a good one. Atlas Obscura highlights some of the weird highlights of world travel. I’ve used it a few times on my travel. To be fair, quite a few countries are missing out of the book, but you can always visit the website. Without it, how would I have known that the Iveria Radisson Blu in Tbilisi actually used to be a refugee camp?
1000 Places to See Before You Die – Patricia Schultz
Ending with a cliche, I still like this book. I go through and mark off all the places I’ve been. It gives me a sense of accomplishment!