Inspiring tales to read before (or during) your travels.
By Kim Bercaw
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But before you take that step, there’s nothing like a good travel memoir to jumpstart your spirit of adventure. Since there are countless tomes to choose from, I’ve decided to save you some work and list some good options here. And by continent, to boot! Whether you’ve already booked your trip, or are just dreaming of doing so, perusing any of the volumes below constitutes quiet time well spent. With the hope of including something exciting for a broad range of tastes, I’ve included everything from light, refreshing reads to prose-y, literary masterpieces. You’ll find lots of classics, as well as a few lesser-known surprises.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad— Considered by many to be Conrad’s finest work, this dark allegory chronicles the author’s travels up the Congo River in an effort to encounter (and commune with) the region’s lawless inhabitants.
Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles— A deep tale of survival and spiritual growth in North Africa’s Sahara desert, enhanced by vivid place descriptions and an exploration of the limits of humanity.
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux— This book chronicles an amusing journey from Cairo to Cape Town and all the places in between. It’s another exceptional read from one of the planet’s most beloved travel writers.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander-– The granddaddy of adventure novels, this book recounts an historic attempt to cross the Antarctic on foot. This is one of history’s most dramatic survival stories.
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski– After spending some time in a mental hospital, the Antarctica-obsessed author decides to fulfill a lifelong goal of visiting the continent of her dreams. A humorous account of obsessions and realizations of which we can all relate.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie— A touching tale of two young boys who were taken from their homes and sent to the mountains for “re-education” during China’s Cultural Revolution. It paints a clear picture of some of the key cultural clashes between China and the West, then and now.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie— When 1,001 children are born at 12:00 a.m. on August 15, 1947 in India, they are known as “midnight’s children,” and they are forever linked to one another and their country. Though technically a work of fiction, the novel really shines as a travel narrative, where readers are culturally enlightened by Rushdie’s brilliant descriptiveness.
Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia by Peter Theroux– As it turns out, Paul’s brother also possesses the travel writing gene. This book is a thoughtful study of Saudi culture that begins with a riveting search for a vanished Lebanese imam.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson— The Land Down Under harbors more lethal wildlife than any other place on earth. But that doesn’t deter seasoned travel writer Bill Bryson from plunging headfirst into the culture. The result is an infectiously humorous and engaging tale.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin– Centered around a walkabout in the Outback, this artfully conceived narrative draws comparisons between human cultural evolution and traditional Aboriginal songlines.
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway— Perhaps the most celebrated book about bullfighting ever written, this story presents Spain’s national institution as a mixture of art, athleticism, technical skill and intense grace under pressure. Intriguing to friends and foes of bullfighting alike.
Heidi’s Alp: One Family’s Search for Storybook Europe by Christina Hardyment– The author and her four daughters set out on an epic, 4,000 mile road trip in search of the landscapes of their favorite fairy tales.
Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan— A gripping travelogue that sheds light on the Balkans, both past and present, along with the ethnic clashes and political volatility that has shaped these nations.
Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage by Robert Michael Pyle— Trailing these faithful flyers from their breeding ground in British Columbia to the Mexican border and beyond, the author embarks on an adventurous, highly informative journey that renews his passion for life.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac— Perhaps the quintessential American road trip tale, it’s a must-read for anyone with a desire to experience one of the most significant, brilliantly crafted artifacts of contemporary literature.
Into the Wild by John Krakauer– A well-to-do young man gives away all his worldly possessions, hitchhikes to Alaska and walks into the wilderness in an effort to invent a more deliberate existence for himself. Krakauer expertly weaves together the details of the man’s life, death and the mysterious events that led up to it.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin— Who would have known a sloth skin of his grandmother’s would inspire a life-changing journey through Chile to the “uttermost part of the earth”? A colorfully written, oddly delightful masterpiece.
In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon 1988— Deep in the Amazon, down uncharted rivers in a dugout canoe, the author tries and succeeds to locate one of the most violent tribes of natives on the continent in an effort to “party” with them. Strangely fascinating.
Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa—A photographic pilgrimage along the entire length of the Andes with an acclaimed Ecuadorian photographer providing the visuals.
Hopefully these stories will keep you busy for a while. And while you’re reading, why not ask a Travel Beyond consultant to plan your next trip? I’m sure he or she will be happy to help.