It’s interesting: I don’t read travel books much (I usually prefer novels) and yet the following books are not only travel books but some of my favorite books of all time.
I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it means that a lot of travel books are annoying. It usually starts with the title. Take No Touch Monkey! by Ayun Halliday, for example. I will never read that book, not because it’s a bad book (I have no idea if it’s good or bad) but simply because of the title.
A lot of travel books seem to suffer from the malady of trying to make experiences seem more dramatic or crazy than they are. I’ve suffered from this same pitfall. “Creative” non-fiction writers tend to think their experiences are unique.
But though they might not be unique, how you tell it is. Bill Bryson, for one, has proven a great travel writer can write something readable about a mundane experience. It’s not in how you lived it then but how you tell it, and the following authors and books tell it well.
Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson
This was the first real travel book I read. I belly-laughed at multiple parts in the book, and it sparked my love affair with Bill Bryson, still one of my favorite authors.
Quotable quote: “Romans park their cars the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.”
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson’s best book, which has since been made into a movie. A narrative about walking a trail day after day seems like it would be boring, but Bryson’s talent for taking any experience, like shopping for hiking gear at the local co-op, and turning it into comedy, is apparent.
Quotable quote: “We spent a whole afternoon going through his stock. He would say things to me like: ‘Now this has a 70-denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here’-and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid tone, as if disclosing that it had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor-‘the seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped.'”
Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban
The description of navigating Deception Pass alone is reason to read this book. The meditative language fits the pace of sailing/motoring up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska perfectly.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
I only read this recently. I like it for the dark, dream-like qualities — it’s hard to tell if what is happening is really real or just some kind of malaria-induced hallucination.
There is also something to be said for heading into the unknown. Not just the unknown for you, but the unknown for most. Travel is a chance to do this.
Quotable quote: “We live as we dream–alone….”
Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a true story, Chuck Klosterman
Still my favorite Klosterman book of all time, I re-read KYTL every couple of years, or at least snippets of it. The reason this book is so good is because it’s not about what it’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about Klosterman traveling through the US going to sites where famous rock stars have died, but it’s actually about his relationships with various women. And we humans love to read about relationships, especially when talked about by someone as funny as Chuck.
Quotable quote: “…Lenore will send me the nicest e-mail I’ve ever received from anyone, and reading it will make me want to hide in a cave for 10,000 years.”