On P’s suggestion, I decided to share my top ten travel writing books – i.e. books that have taught me something new about a place or a culture or that use travel as a central motif in the writing. When I began pulling the list together, I realized that I have not read many books that have those themes. Essays, yes – Pico Iyer is a favorite of mine – but books not as much. So I’m eager to read your suggestions of travel books I should read.
But first, here are my top ten travel books:
1. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin – I read this book while very sick with a high fever, and I loved it – somehow a fever was perfect for helping me get past my rigid notions of story and be able fall in love with the Aboriginal “dream-tracks” that capture the people’s histories and stories. Loved this book.
2. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – Even as I know the critiques of this book, I loved it. Maybe because I know what it is to have a marriage fall apart. Maybe because I know the feeling of being lost in oneself. But this book gave me hope and inspired me. Now, if only I can find someone to give me an advance so that P and I can travel the world.
3. My Other Life by Paul Theroux – I can still remember David Ulin reading from this book at a graduate seminar. I remember him pointing out Theroux’s honesty about his fear when he was the only white man in large space, where everyone else was black. I remember that idea – of the honesty in writing – zinging to center for me. I will forever love this book because it taught me something so crucial about writing.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson – For a rather sheltered, sort of conservative, Christian young woman, this book was a life-changer. I struggled through it – not because the writing was bad; it isn’t; it’s brilliant – but because I just didn’t get why someone would do this. Now, 15 years later, I get it. I totally get it.
5. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster – Forster’s book – coming to India through a Western lens – was the first book I read where I understood the import of “the gaze” and “the other,” even though I didn’t now those terms then. Forster helped me love India . . . even as I now recognize the complexities of viewing one culture through the lens of another . . . and opened the door for other Indian writers I love, namely Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie.
6. American Borders: A Solo Circumnavigation of the United States on a Russian Sidecar Motorcycle by Carla King – I’m a big fan of roadtrips – probably because they seem so quintessentially American to me. So King’s book about riding a motorcycle around the U.S., well, it’s inspiring to me. Although somehow, I think my dream Vespa might not make the trip.
7. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – I love Bill Bryson’s wit and insightfulness, so when he took it to my backyard, I had to read. Such a fun book, and one that helped me see American – especially our fondness for big outdoors – in a new way. Plus, it taught me that I probably wasn’t cut out to hike long stretches of the AT.
8. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer – This book would make my Top 25 books period. I love McCandless’s story . . . and I love how Krakauer wrote it. So inspiring and tragic. I taught the book a few years ago, and that experience forced me to read and think more closely about the text. It was even more brilliant to me when I did that.
9. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – My friend Jen gave me this book just before I left for a few weeks in Morocco. I read Bowles’ story while I was there and found myself studying how I was taking the cultures around me – Moroccon, Muslim – and altering them with my own judgments. A great lesson for me to try to put aside my perspective sometimes.
10. Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit – I’m a big proponent of walking as a way of knowing a place. I’ve walked as many streets and paths as I can in every place I’ve lived and visited, and the only thing I don’t love about God’s Whisper Farm is that I cannot walk to town because our driveway ends at a highway. So Solnit’s meditations on walking as travel, as a way to know a place really resound in my spirit. Great book.
What about you? What travel books do you love? Which ones do you recommend for me, particularly as I try to diversify my reading?