For me, part and parcel with trying to become a better writer is reading. A lot. While I’d like to think that my writing it fairly good and hopefully deserving at some point of being published somewhere, I am under no misconceptions that I can hold a candle, or fountain pen, to any of the following writers. So the question is… what are the best travel books out there today?
A few notes before I run through these. I have linked all of these books to Amazon — if you click through and buy any, I will get a small percentage of the sale for referring to to their website. I wish they all were available on the Kindle (which is a godsend, and if you are a big reader, should be on your list of must-buys), but they aren’t all yet on that format.
Best Travel Books
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. This is the book that many credit as being the first modern travel book, which brought the genre back to the forefront in the 70s and is commonly regarded as one of the best travel books. Theroux has written dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, but this was the one that started his run of travel literature. I’ve referred to him as “my favorite asshole” to a variety of people and I stand by that opinion. One reason I love his travel books is that he isn’t a fluff writer — he acknowledges there is good and bad out there on the road and doesn’t shy away from writing a good bit about the latter.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The is one of my favorite books in any genre, but might be at the top of my best travel books of all time. His prose is lyrical. Here he writes eloquently about his buddhist beliefs, the state of our natural world, and success and failure in life and he hikes through Tibet with a famous zoologist searching for the elusive snow leopard.
Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign by Pico Iyer. Iyer is another writer that crafts prose in a manner more similar to a fiction author than what you would normally think of as travel writing. This book is a collection of essays and his examination of jet lag is worth the price of the book on its own.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. A meandering and revered classic. Chatwin was a controversial writer for a few reasons, one of which was that he wasn’t shy about the fact that he fictionalized some of his accounts, most particularly some of the dialog in his books. Personally, I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t have to partly fictionalize their dialog in most every travel narrative, unless you are carrying a tape recorder around with you. In any case, this book is about his wandering around, on foot, in a part of the world often referred to as close to the American Wild West.
The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers by Eric Hansen. I don’t know too many people that have read Hansen’s stuff, but I really like his writing. This book is a collection of essays over thirty years or so, and they leap from the French Riviera to the South Pacific, India, Manhattan, California, Borneo, and back to California. Some weird, some poignant, all memorable – it is a great read.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Bryson is the one writer out there today that I buy automatically. In my eye, anything he writes is good. He specializes in finding oddities and unusual stories relating to any topic he is talking about. Memorize some of the tidbits in his book and you will be a trivia success at any dinner party. Plus, he might be the person alive today that I most want to hoist a pint with.
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. This is the only book of his that I have read so far, but it is a book that is hard to put down. A few months after the Taliban was deposed in Afghanistan, Stewart walked almost all the way across that vast country. It is a gripping book and its insights into the culture of the rural Muslim communities he interacts with is like taking a graduate course in current affairs.