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.
Travel memoir is my favorite genre to read, but of your list, I’ve only read The Places In Between, which I couldn’t put down either. Fascinating. Thanks for the other recommendations!
I have so many favorites that I had to do these posts in bite sized pieces. I am looking forward to posting up a few more of my favorites soon.
This is a wonderful post. I love to know what other people are reading or have read. Thanks for sharing!!
Love Bryson. I still have yet to get his latest one… (got a sampler for my Kindle and I’ve really enjoyed it). Not so much a fan of Theroux’s writing though. Will check the others out and hope they have the ebook versions.
Theroux is one of those writers that people love or hate. Given that I am also of his generally attitude towards life and travel — I am a fan 😉
Now I don’t know which I want to do most; order one of the ones I haven’t read or jump on the next plane! The ones on your list I have read Theroux, Bryson, Chatwin and especially Matthiesson’s Snow Leopord I’ve loved. Once I’ve finished with a book I usually pass it on or sell it, but I’ve kept everything I’ve ever bought from those authors. I’ve been aware for a long time that I was guilty of not reading Iyer, so maybe ordering that from Amazon is a cheaper option than the plane ticket for the time being!
If I had to add a name to your list it would be Tony Horwitz, Blue Latitudes in particular!
I do need to read some of Horwitz’s stuff. I haven’t had the chance yet. Thanks.
Just updated my Kindle! Thanks for the recommendations.
hopefully you clicked through to Amazon via my link 😉
My favourite is The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, not a travel book per se but still an amazing read.
Reading “In a Sunburned Country” now and absolutely loving it. I keep awkwardly laughing out loud in public places and quoting the trivia facts to my Australian friends. Great book!
I’m going to have to check out ‘In Patagonia’. I’m in need of a new good book.
Is one of the few travel books about Australia that I’ve read and thought “this guy actually gets what we’re really like” instead of cringing in horror when people focus on stupid things like yobbo truckies in blue singlets, crocodiles and New Age-inspired rubbish about Ayers Rock.
I love everything he’s written — he is fabulous
I’ve only read two of those
– In Patagonia which I thought was awesome – I finished it just before I left to
go to the airport for 5 weeks in Argentina and Chile and so I had Chatwin’s awesome prose running through my head the whole time.
– In a Sunburned Country (Published as Down Under in Australia) – as an Australian it was one of those outsider looking in books for me, and I loved it. Particularly memorable was his description of a game of cricket, and a commentary on how boring our (then) prime minister was. I still need to read most of his others, but this one I loved.
Great list – some of the others are on my reading list. So few hours, so many books.
I would also mention William Least Heat Moon, Tim Cahill, and Jason Eliot as favorite travel/adventure authors.
Loved “In Patagonia”! Dammit, more reading material to add to the list…
Since I’m all about travel and books at A Traveler’s Library, I hope you’ll check out some of the lists there. My all time favorite travel author is Patrick Leigh Fermor followed closely by Norman Lewis. Lawerence Durrell and Mark Twain are not to shabby as travel writers, also. (You might notice I lean to the classics.)
I’ve heard about Great Railway Bazaar and seen it in a few other recommendations I’ll have to check it out.
Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve just been reading Graham Greene’s journey without maps and Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana. Sometimes the 1930s style is difficult but still some of the most evocative travel writing passages I’ve ever written.
A little good reading is a great inspiration for a trip. I think that we were to require to kids to read these books then there would probably be alot more travelers.
I’m always looking for new books to add to my list to download on the Kindle, and I especially like to find ones that come highly recommended by others. So thanks for the list! 🙂
Bill Bryson is fantastic!!!!! Stewart Lee Allen is great, too! I like ‘In The Devil’s Garden’ and ‘The Devil’s Cup’ by him. The first follows the ancient history of particularly sinful foods and the second book is a history of the devilish cup of coffee. Both are great reads and while not traditional travel books, they give an interesting perspective on food abroad and locally.
Another excellent travel writer is William Dalrymple. City of Djinns (about a year in Delhi) is one of my faves…, all his books, really.
Ahhhh, I haven’t read any of this yet — need to get to it. Hope there is some on the Kindle.
Thanks for the recommendations – you’ve added a few new authors to my list. Will add them to the list to check out!
Thanks. I need to do a follow-up post in the next few weeks also.
I absolutely loved the Snow Leopard. You gained a lot of credibility there with that pick, so now I want to read all your other recommendations.
The Snow Leopard is a book I re-read every 5 years and never grow tired of reading. It’s truly, utterly magical.
I was interested to read in Pico Iyer’s book on the Dalai Lama recently that Iyer re-reads that book every five years or so. It is magical.
Thanks for all the suggestions! I just got a Kindle and was looking for good books to download – great timing! Since I’ve spent time living in the South of France I have gravitated towards books about travel and lfie in France. For a light read, I love Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (and the subsequent books), which are even funnier after having lived in this area of France.
Great post. Like others who have commented, I love to read about overland journeys. So much so in fact that I wrote about my own adventure across China, Tibet, Nepal and India in https://www.amazon.com/High-Road-Tibet-Travels-ebook/dp/B0045Y1PSI – I was inspired by Dervla Murphy’s epic Full Tilt: Ireland to India by Bicyble. A real travel adventure before the age of backpacking hostels and cheap flights.
thanks for finding the blog, John, and for the lead on finding your book. Congrats.
Congratulations on the great post, I am in the middle of a research which includes travel books and your post is a lot of help, cheers!