For a reader sifting through libraries both virtual and physical, navigating through the multitude of genres available can be as confusing as picking out the right kind of blue in a paint swatch.
Young Adult, Women’s Upmarket, Inspirational, Steampunk Historical, LGBT (sorry if I forgot a letter somewhere) Romance, and on and on.
I’ve read a lot of books and plan to read a hell of a lot more. But the one genre that I constantly return to for inspiration and poignancy is travel.
So I’m here to make my case that you should ignore the jungle of genres, get a metaphorical toothpicks, pick them out of their shells, and throw them away.
Travel literature – and here I’m including both fiction and non-fiction – introduces you to the greatest character in all of literature and the only one that truly matters: humanity. Literature, good literature, is a piece of archeological handiwork that delicately unveils layer upon layer of human nature and existence.
And here are, in my humble opinion, the best travel books that do this. I would arrogantly recommend that you spend the rest of your summer lost in these, binge on these books of adventure and humanity as if they were your new favourite Netflix series. But better.
- A Moveable Feast
When Ernest Hemingway was nearing the end of his life, after a decade of plane crashes, illness and alcoholism, he rediscovered his old Paris papers. From those papers he wrote one of the most beautiful homages ever written to a city. He looked back on his life in the cafes of the Left Bank, living with fellow geniuses like James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and others. His tribute to the Paris of the 20’s was so heartfelt that after the horrific November 13 attacks on Paris, the book shot to the top of the book charts in Paris, nearly a hundred years after its publication.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
- A Cook’s Tour
I have always been proud to call Anthony Bourdain the Hemingway of our times. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the two men would share an almost identical fate – both committing suicide at the age of 61. Everyone is familiar with Bourdain’s television work. His last series, CNN’s Parts Unknown, was a gritty, realistic, poignant travel show that exposed beauty and tragedy in equal measure.
Bourdain was also an accomplished writer. He wrote the same way he spoke. His memoir Kitchen Confidential had originally launched his unique star but my favourite book of his is A Cook’s Tour – a series of travelogues set in different parts of the world. His experiences of drinking vodka in Russia, learning to love oysters in his childhood France and eating soft-boiled duck embryos in Cambodia are some of the most memorable scenes in modern literature.
“When I finally leave the market, the streets are dark, and I pass a few blocks where not a single electric light appears – only dark open storefronts and coms (fast-food eateries), broom closet-sized restaurants serving fish, meat, and rice for under a dollar, flickering candles barely revealing the silhouettes of seated figures. The tide of cyclists, motorbikes, and scooters has increased to an uninterrupted flow, a river that, given the slightest opportunity, diverts through automobile traffic, stopping it cold, spreads into tributaries that spill out over sidewalks, across lots, through filling stations.”
- The Road to Oxiana
A travelogue published in 1937 describing Robert Byron’s ten-month journey through the Middle-East in the early 30’s. One of the best travel writers of his day, a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Byron’s writing is intimate, youthful and embellished with a poetic eye for observation. The purpose of Byron’s travels was to study the architecture of the region. An art critic by training, he hits his stride when he enters Persia (modern-day Iran) and produces some of the finest art writing you’re ever likely to find outside an insipid museum. This book shows that travel is something not quite like butter – it easily spreads itself out to other areas of human achievements.
“The existence of St Sophia is atmospheric; that of St Peter’s, overpoweringly, imminently substantial. One is a church to God: the other a salon for his agents. One is consecrated to reality, the other, to illusion. St Sophia in fact is large, and St Peter’s is vilely, tragically small.”
- In Patagonia
A modernist ode to travel. In a way this is the Ulysses of travel writing. Bruce Chatwin, a novelist as well as a travel writer, spent six months in Patagonia, meeting people from all over the world – including a lot of Welsh people! – who made that remote wilderness their home. The book is divided into 97 separate parts. There is no linear narrative or straightforward structure. But his writing is ingratiating and wondrous. Having been to Patagonia now myself, this book really captures what it’s like to live and explore a rare piece of territory still unconquered by man. This book is a journey both physical and symbolic.
“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”
- The Motorcycle Diaries
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
As well as Chatwin captures the spirit of Patagonia, The Motorcycle Diaries is the book that actually accompanied me to Patagonia. It was only fitting. This book – along with its accompanying, grandiloquent film – inspired by youthful wanderlust and desire to see South America. I’m no great fan of what Che Guevara the revolutionary grew up to be. I’m no fan of his politics. But he is a sensitive writer with a poetic heart and throughout his travels as a young doctor all along the spine of South America, you can’t help but be taken in by the compassion he shows to the indigenous and outcast peoples he encounters along the way. We all dream of imitating Che Guevara and his travelling companion Alberto Granado’s road trip through that elusive continent, but few of us could capture it’s divided nature.
“As always at barbecues, there was far too much meat for everyone, so we were given carte blanche to pursue our vocation as camels. We executed, furthermore, a carefully calculated plan. I pretended to get drunker and drunker and, with every apparent attack of nausea, I staggered off to the stream, a bottle of red wine hidden inside my leather jacket. After five attacks of this type we had the same number of liters of wine stored beneath the fronds of a willow, keeping cool in the water.”
- Tristes Tropiques
A polymath book written by the father of anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss wrote about his travels in the rainforests of Brazil, seeking out and meeting indigenous tribes, the whole time analysing the role of geography, history, language and culture all play on human structures. It’s not easy, beach reading but it highlights the genre’s durability and its potential to dig deep into mankind’s psyche.
“From time to time, too, and for the space of two or three paces, an image or an echo would rise up from the recesses of time: in the little streets of the beaters of silver and gold, for instance, there was a clear, unhurried tinkling, as if a djinn with a thousand arms was absent-mindedly practising on a xylophone.”
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Matsuo Bashō is known as the Gordon Ramsay of haiku. A pioneer of the short poetic form, Matsuo Bashō was also a traveller. In this short travelogue, originally titled Oku no Hosomichi he catalogues, in a mixture of verse and prose, his dangerous travels through Edo Japan. This book is considered the very soul of Japan. Apart from the beauty of the haiku itself, Bashō’s observations on travel remain timeless, such as the beautiful passage, “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”
“Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander.”
- Heart of Darkness
This is a darker side of travel fiction. Conrad’s descent into the Congo’s slave-ridden, racist, crushed rivers and villages makes for disturbing and yet necessary reading. Imagine Apocalypse Now! the Francis Ford Coppola film inspired by Conrad’s novella, imagine yourself flowing down a river in Vietnam, on your way to meeting a god-like, shaven Marlon Brando – that is the feel of this book and it’s not a story that you will get out of your head easily.
“We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”