Thursday, 6 September 2012

Books for the Road: Top 10 Travel Reads!

Planning a trip and looking for more information and inspiration? 

Or are you on the road and wanting to really immerse yourself in the spirit of your destination...or the spirit of travel itself?

Either way, what you need is a good travel book!

It's true, we are what we read. (I know this because I once spent the day in a hostel in Santiago de Chile reading the entire Sherlock Holmes anthology...only to go out that night and (after a few...okay, many drinks) become convinced that my travelling companions were involved in an elaborate drug-smuggling plot and that it was down to me to solve the case.)

Anyhow, when we read we take elements from said book into other aspects of our lives, whether it be the general mood, the era, voice, character, etc, etc.

Therefore, why not carefully choose your travel reads, based on your destination, mode or style of travel, and further enrich your travelling experience?

Reading about the place you are travelling will no doubt shape your experience there, but this can be a very good thing. Your travel book will act as your "second opinion", giving you a more unbiased perspective. Through travel books you can learn things about the country that might be beyond the reach of the average traveller, such as buried histories and niche, forgotten or undiscovered destinations. Often, the extensive research done by the writer will expand upon and/or give added weight to your own observations. You will understand why things are the way they are, instead of merely seeing the way things are today. Or perhaps you'll simply learn the name of that strange-shaped tree you keep spotting everywhere. It's all good.

It depends on how you travel of course, but a travel book is a great way to pass the time spent on trains or waiting for buses.

So, without any further ado, here are my top 10 travel books, by country:

What to read while you travel...Thailand?
The Beach by Alex Garland. Obviously. This classic backpacker novel is not just good for Thailand. It is the quintessential travel book!

Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry. Consistently voted one of the best novels ever written, this semi-autobiographical tale, set during Mexico's Day of the Dead, deftly and single-handedly captures the spirit of Mexico, drunkeness/alcoholism and the very feel of living abroad in a strange culture.

Speaking of the best (travel) novels ever written...Ulysses by James Joyce. It's hard to choose between Joyce's works (not to mention all of Ireland's other great writers): Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegan's Wake would all do the job, but the style he acheived with Ulysses has become as representative of the Irish sensibility as the subject matter could ever be.

Many would say Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I'm not going to though. I'm going to say Gog by Andrew Sinclair. Basically, a man washes up on the shores of Britain with only snippets of memory, and as he "tramps" around in search of answers, we get a better impression of Britain, past and present, than perhaps we bargained for. A work of many levels.

South America?
I'm going to be controversial again and say that Travelling with Che Guevara by Alberto Granada makes a better travel read than Che's own Motorcycle Diaries. A much easier read for starters, it lacks the convoluted political rantings that would later be proved ineffective, and doesn't suffer from the translation difficulties. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a Che fan as the next guy, but in this case you get a clearer portrait from the eyes of his close friend and travelling companion than from within.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. While there's no end to the amount that's been written about India, no book gets me fired up to travel India like Siddhartha. Simultaneously a concise overview of Eastern philosophy and one of the wisest books I've ever read!

White Fang by Jack London. London is master of envoking the beauty and harshness of the Northern wilderness. Some prefer Call of the Wild, which is shorter and with a less classical ending, but they're so similar that people generally like whichever they read first. That said, no book puts the adventure back into travelling Canada like Whitefang.

Baber's Apple by Michael Marr is a hilariously poignant and little known dark comic novel that sees "Baber" flung from "leafy suburbia" into obscure and rarely travelled Kazakhstan.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The original travel novel (well actually argued to be the original novel) still holds up impressively well today. It's also massive, so you won't need to worry about what to do when you finish it.

Last but not least, the motherland of the road novel genre. I've gone with On the Road by Jack Kerouac...again, obviously! However, it was a very tough call. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and anything by Kerouac, particularly the second half of Desolation Angels, are amoung some of the best, most inspiring travel books ever written!

I've missed out some of my favourite travel books, and that's because they fall under the category of "Top 5 Motorcycle Travel Books"...another post for another time.

Here are the top travel books with cool names:

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Here are the authors of the Classic Travel Lit:

Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises for vivid descriptions of Paris during its hey-day and the bull fights in Pamplona, Spain.

Bill Bryson - Author of A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, The Lost Continent and Notes From a Small Island.

Paul Theroux - The world's favourite travel author, who brought us such travel masterpieces as Dark Star Safari, The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express.

Bruce Chatwin - Another master and writer of some of the best travel books in history: In Patagonia and The Songlines.

Mark Twain - Probably the most quoted man of all time, Twain knew what it meant to travel, and shared it in such works as Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad.

John Steinbeck - The man responsible for The Grapes of Wrath, the best road novel of all time (after On the Road of course). His other travel books include The Log From the Sea of Cortez and Travels With Charley.

Jan Morris - Up there with Freya Stark as one of the finest female travel writers, particularly when it comes to writing about Europe. Some of Morris' classic travel books include Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, The World of Venice and Europe: An Intimate Portrait.

Also on the shelves of Waterstones, you are likely to find Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, two classic pieces of travel literature.

And here are some common travel books you're likely to find in a hostel book exchange:

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Writing this post woke me up to the fact that there's a lot of interesting places out there with a disproportionately low amount written about them. If you know of any great travel books or books about places I've missed, please enlighten me in the comments and I'll get reading...




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