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The Best Travel Books I’ve Read

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I read a lot of books, but here are a few that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who loves to travel. I love to travel, but I’m a budget traveler, which means that I am always looking for the best value for my money. Some of my favorite travel books are: – The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard – The Long Way: A New Way to See the World by John Elliott – The Busman’s Holiday by Peter Fleming – Travels with Myself and Another by Martin Booth – The Making of the English Landscape by John Timbs – The Last Resort by Victor Pelevin – The Fugitive by Paul Theroux

The last couple of years have been some of the most exciting for me as a traveller. I’ve travelled a lot, but the last couple of years have been the best for me. I’ve discovered a lot about what really makes a great travel experience. I’ve also discovered some things that I don’t like about travel. As a result, I’ve thought a lot about how to make travel better. The answer is simple: travel better by reading books. There are countless books about travel, but I’ve discovered a few that are the best of the best. I’ve read them all, and I’ve made a list of the best of the best. The books I’ve selected for this list are all about travel

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to over fifteen countries, so I thought I’d share tips and tricks to help you plan your trip. If you’re like me, you spend a good amount of time planning, so you might be wondering how travel changes the way you shop and shop the changes you plan.

best books i've read on my travelsLong-term travel necessitates a voracious appetite for book suggestions. While iPods and computers are wonderful ways to pass the time on a long bus ride, nothing beats the satisfaction of turning the pages of a good book. I try to restrict my reading to non-fiction while I travel. After all, traveling for the sake of traveling is such a fundamentally indulgent activity that the very least I can do is attempt to learn as I go! The majority of the books I purchase or trade are nonfiction, but I’ve been given some excellent fiction to read along the way and have included it as well. At the conclusion of the list, I’ve added some of my personal favorites from back home.

This list will undoubtedly be updated towards the conclusion of my journey, but these are the books that have stuck out to me during the past 15 months.

 

The greatest travel novels I’ve ever read while traveling:

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children2XGLSQ7 by John Wood. If you enjoyed Three Cups of Tea, read Wood’s account of his metamorphosis from corporate executive at Microsoft to philanthropist extraordinaire. While Mortensen’s personality often served as a deterrent to the success of his endeavours (he was notably disorganized and often forgot about the commitments he made to speak to a crowd), Wood’s business acumen and the many skills he developed at Microsoft enabled his organization Room to Read to become extremely successful. Room to Read is now building schools, bilingual libraries and providing scholarships in 9 countries, and their innovative approach to fund-raising and development (local R2R chapters in Europe, North America and Australia (among other countries) raise a considerable amount of the funds; communities receiving schools or libraries must co-invest portions of the materials or labour in order to ensure a vested interest in the project) has translated into a lot of happy children and community pride. For me, the idea that the scholarships for girls included not only the books and cost of schooling, but school uniforms, schools and bookbags was particularly touching; it is rare that an organization’s attention to detail is so thorough and effective.

Taras Grescoe’s The Devil’s Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink The Devil’s Picnic is an instructive and very enjoyable read, despite the beginning, which I felt detracted from the entire book. Travel with Grescoe as he searches the world for prohibited foods and drinks, and laugh with him as he tries them out once he arrives. It’s a very entertaining read, with a colorful history of each “devil’s dish,” from raw-milk cheeses in France to mate de coca in Bolivia to moonshine in Norway. Of course, the fact that Grescoe is from Montreal, where I grew up, doesn’t hurt!

Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World is a biography of the fish that changed the world. I don’t like for cod’s flavor, but after reading this book, I have a greater respect for its world-changing significance. Cod is a vast, informative book on European history, religion, discovery, and the extinction of the fish population, beginning with the claim that explorers would never have made it to North America if it weren’t for salted cod to support them. I’ll never be able to look at fish the same way ever again.

Tahir Shah’s Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams Shah’s book about his new home in Morocco, Dar Khalifa, and his quest for teaching tales that offer a foundation of learning in the East is a fascinating read, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. This book will appeal to you greatly if you like Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. Every word was enjoyable to me.

Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith is a must-read. A frightening book on the history of Mormonism in America and the subsequent divergence of fundamentalists (such as the FLDS) from mainstream Mormon views. Krakauer links fundamentalists’ polygamy practices and very offputting interpretations of “God’s word” to pretty detailed tales of sexual and physical abuse and incest. The most interesting section of the book is at the conclusion, when Krakauer deconstructs and refutes the church’s harsh analysis and rebuttal of the original version of the book, paragraph by paragraph.

Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I picked up In Defense of Food, the sequel to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when I spotted it in Indonesia after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (see below). In response to the apparently easy issue of what we should eat, Pollan walks us through the history of nutritionism in America, the resulting flood of “Western illnesses,” and the processed food industry’s domination. A persuasive argument for why we eat the way we do in North America and, increasingly, the rest of the globe.

Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young & Thomas McFadden. Travel through Bolivia and you will absolutely see at least a dozen people furiously turning the pages of Marching Powder. Absorbing and shocking, the book chronicles the life of Thomas McFadden, a British citizen who was imprisoned for cocaine trafficking and the strange prison that houses him in La Paz. Rusty Young, a law graduate and backpacker who is drawn to McFadden’s story, becomes more embroiled in his life -and Young eventually finds himself representing McFadden in his bid for parole and in recounting the story of his life. The book is a great read outside of Bolivia, but once you’ve travelling there witnessed the chaos of La Paz and the clash of people and cultures in its tangled streets, you won’t be able to put it down.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea1626655690_616_The-Best-Travel-Books-I039ve-Read by Charles Seife. Great book about the chaos and controversy caused by a little thing we call the number zero. If you hate math, it’s still worth a read – just ignore all the graphs and equations!

A. Zee’s book Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine is a playful journey through Chinese culture, language, and cuisine. This is the book for those of you (like me) who are fascinated by the sheer diversity of Chinese food. The book offers an endless number of helpful and entertaining stories about what it means to eat in China by connecting the history of Chinese cuisine with the Chinese character radicals seen on a menu. Swallowing Clouds is an excellent introduction to the history and language that precedes and surrounds China’s food culture. After all, there are 300 radicals for the single English word “broil.”

Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts. People either love Shantaram, or they love the first half of the book and then hate the author’s arrogance thereafter. Regardless of what you think about Roberts and/or his personality flaw, the man can seriously write. Engaging, thought-provoking and at times seriously depressing, Shantaram kept me entertained during rainy evenings and a long-haul flight. I started the book in Australia and, after reading the first paragraph, emailed it to my brother with a note that said “Read it”. Having finished the book somewhere between Bali and Sumbawa, I can see how some readers start to resent Roberts’ style towards the end. Still, it is worth pushing through until the last page; the lyrical, captivating prose is reason enough, with most sentences worthy of recopying and filing away for future inspiration. The “based on true events” story of a man’s daring escape from Australian prison and resultant flight to the heart of Bombay’s underworld, Shantaram is at times meditative, at times philosophical and oftentimes achingly sad. I stand by my initial reaction: read it.

Henri Charriere’s Papillon (P.S.). Papillon, like Shantaram, tells the story of Charriere’s choice to flee jail rather than serve time for a crime that he (unlike Roberts) did not commit – and there’s no pretense here. Nonetheless, Papillon was a fantastic book, thanks in part to the setting (the French Guiana penal colonies) and the tenacious spirit of Charriere, who kept being caught on the run yet attempted to escape jail each time he was reincarcerated. I’ve noticed many travelers reading it on this journey, despite the fact that book was published in 1968.

Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between – Stewart’s brave (and foolish) journey across post-9/11 Afghanistan in the footsteps of King Babur of Kabul is a page-turning, interesting book.

Before I left, I read a few of my favorites:

These are the books that I have read and re-read and kept on the top of my bookshelves.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a novel that he ghostwrote. My favorite fiction writer is David Mitchell, and his intricate, tangentially connected tapestry of tales in Cloud Atlas and the strange realm he constructs in Ghostwritten are two of his finest.

Robert Sullivan’s book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Rats burned its teachings into my memory without remorse, while Cod altered the way I saw fish. Sullivan’s meticulous, stalkeresque obsession with rats and how they live and breathe in the City That Never Sleeps (he sits on a stool in Eden Alley nightly to watch them after dark) filled me with the creepies. I’ve never been scared of rats, but now I know things like if you spot one rat foraging during the day, there are at least 100 more lurking under your feet. Or that when the Twin Towers collapsed, they landed on all the food concourses below, causing the rats to do what rats do: reproduce, gorge themselves, and reproduce. There would have been a major outbreak after 9/11 if it hadn’t been for NYC’s most capable City Exterminators baiting much of lower Manhattan with poison. This book is a must-read for the many, many interesting facts about the rodents that most people despise.

Snow is a novel by Orhan Pamuk. Snow, a deep and sad story about Ka, an Istanbul poet who returns to Turkey after a decade of exile in Germany, walks the fine line between East and West in his home country, with sometimes catastrophic and fatal results, as do many of Pamuk’s books. My Name Is Red is also worth reading.

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a natural history of four meals. Pollan’s book is about Americans’ national eating problem, which is that they can’t stop worrying about food. The propensity in North America to separate what we consume from where it comes from means we believe it arrived in pristine store packaging. Pollan quickly discards any sterile leanings and attempts to demonstrate to his readers what happens to their food before it reaches their plate. A powerful critique of North America’s food situation.

David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries). Everything and More takes you on a journey through the history of how what we think of as “infinity” came to be, in Wallace’s trademark quirky and delightful manner. It was a complicated but worthwhile read, with quirky, fun touches like footnotes labeled “IYI” (which stands for “if you’re interested” – which of course you are), pages of equations, and the use of the lemniscate instead of the word “infinity” to emphasize that wrapping your head around the concept of infinity necessitates stepping outside of conventional mathematics. Infinity, as Wallace points out, defies conventional mathematical thinking by being an aggressively abstract notion. Wallace committed himself in September 2008, and I had anticipated he would produce additional works with a scientific bent.

Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid This is an old book. It was first published in 1979 and republished in 1999, and its dynamic study of mathematics, artificial intelligence, art, and creative thinking continues to captivate readers. A much has changed since 1979, as the Amazon.com review points out. Despite this, GEB is still current and intriguing, as shown by its rerelease. The book explores the ideas of odd and endless loops, symmetry, and the power of the human brain, among other things, in the lives of Godel, Escher, and Bach. Fictional conversations between Achilles and the Tortoise are interspersed among the mathematical calculations, riddles, and narrative.

The Belgariad & The Mallorean by David & Leigh Eddings. This epic, chronically underrated fantasy series comprise the books that got me into books. My mother would find me crouched under the covers at 3am when I was in high school, furiously trying to finish the latest volume in the series (yes, I was a geek). These books are un-put-downable and annoyingly delicious; everyone who reads them stops socializing until the series is done. Everyone in my family has read them. To those of you with kids, I cannot recommend these books enough. Read The Belgariad (5 books) first, then The Mallorean (5 books) and then the two companion tomes (Polgara the Sorceress and Belgarath the Sorcerer). And then, when you are done, read The Rivan Codex, the Eddings’ preliminary notes that formed the basis of the series. Eddings passed away in June 2009.

-Jodi

When it comes to finding the best travel books, it’s all about experience and an open mind. I think the most helpful thing you can do is figure out what you want to get out of your traveling and then focus on books that support those goals.. Read more about books about travel and self-discovery and let us know what you think.

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