Five of My Favorite Travel Books

As a writer, traveler, and prolific reader, I often consider that I haven’t read many “travel books,” since I usually don’t delve into travel memoirs. Usually, when I go to the travel section of a library or bookstore, I end up thumbing through a Lonely Planet travel guide, or musing through the colorful pictures of National Geographic. This doesn’t mean, however, that travel isn’t a central theme in the books- be they fictional novels or nonfictional period pieces. I’ve pieced together a list of works that have inspired, entertained, or thoroughly wowed me.  Here are my top five favorite travel books:

  1. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

It would be silly of me to think for one moment that I would be the same person if I hadn’t read this book.  I know quite a few people who say the same, and every time I meet someone who hasn’t read it, I feel a pang of regret for them.  This is the book that got me into the whole Beat Generation and led me into an obsession with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.  But aside from opening lateral literary doors, the tale of Sal Paradise on his road trips through the United States and Mexico invoked an infectious energy through his feverish writing that planted a seed within me.  I wanted to live like he lived, to go and do and dig all that life had to offer.  Sal’s passion is childlike, searching, and just plain cool.  This book made me excited about a new (to me) kind of spontaneous, stream-of-conscious literature, and also got me dreaming about leaving what I knew behind to go and explore the world.  In a way, I can say that On the Road was one of the main reasons why I decided to travel.  And, in my college days, drive 130 MPH down the freeway on roadtrips in my Honda.  I don’t recommend pretending to be Dean Moriarty.

(BTW, am I the only who was pissed off that Katy Perry cited this book as an inspiration for her fireworks song?  Grrr.)

  1. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

This is another book that alot of people say has changed their lives.  Well, it didn’t change my life, but it greatly added to it.  It made me fall in love with Paulo Coelho’s words, recurring wisdom, and his fortitude as a man and as a writer.  To give you some concept of the adversity he faced: his parents sent him to a psychiatrist and ordered that he be given shock treatment when he was a young man.  All because he wanted to be a writer.  They thought he was crazy because he had a story to be told.

Anyhow, this book is definitely a gem.  The story of Santiago, an Andalusian (Spanish) sheep herder, reads like a very well thought-out grown-up fable.  The boy has a dream that he sells his sheep and travels to visit the Egyptian pyramids.  So what does he do?  Well, it’s not all that predictable.

His travels take him across Spain and into Africa, across the Arabian desert and eventually to the Egyptian pyramids.  Santiago runs into all sorts of characters along the way, including a gypsy, a crystal shop-keeper, and an alchemist.  He doesn’t know quite what he’s looking for or why he’s going to the pyramids, he just knows he has to get there.  The whole story is a search for self, a quest for his own Personal Legend, and we see him reach despair and enlightenment several times over.  He questions why he ever left the comfort of home if only to struggle incessantly.

I love this book because it shows (albeit minimalistically) the ups and downs that one goes through while traveling.  Sometimes you do want to give up, sometimes you want to say “to hell with it” and go back home where everything is cozy and comfortable.  The moral of the story: sometimes it’s not where you go, but what you learn along the way, that is the whole part of the journey.  You may go back to the same place you started, but you will not be the same person who started.

  1. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Life of Pi is a tale of a young Indian boy his schoolmates call “Piss” who grows up in a  family-owned zoo.  I heard about this book being good years and years before I actually read it, and I was under the false impression that this was a book about math.  It is not.  I had never heard of Martel’s work before, but this guy can write.  He takes the simplest premise of a story- a Robinson Crusoe kind of situation, if you will- and brings vivid, colorful life to each detail.

To be sure, the majority of the novel takes place on the ocean.  I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone, but it’s sort of an anti-travel travel story in my opinion.  It makes you scared to go anywhere, especially by boat, because you don’t want to end up like Pi (the boy).  But that’s an important part of travel- realizing that shit can go wrong and mentally preparing yourself for the best and worst.  And shit definitely goes wrong here.  Think starvation, loneliness, crazy sunburn, and an orange, furry, 600 pound companion that wants to eat you.  And no possible way to get out of your situation.  It’s really amazing what Martel was able to do here with the storyline.  That’s all I’ll say.

  1. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The first non-fiction novel of the bunch.  Oh, and it’s definitely the craziest.  I love me some crazies!  Tom Wolfe’s journalism is so entertaining, his adjectives so psychedelic, you won’t ever want to read fiction again after this one.  So I embellish.  But this tale of mad LSD-dropping “Merry Pranksters” going around in a magic bus led by Ken Kesey, touring the US and scaring the shit out of squares, tripping out, dancing, loving, and pushing their minds to the extreme is definitely one to remember.

If you’ve ever read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and loved it, then you should definitely check this one out, since it’s based on a part of Kesey’s life where he lived in Palo Alto (ironically, not even 25 miles away from my hometown- how I wish I could’ve been there!) and entertained a bunch of free-loading, music-loving hippies while his wife took care of the house and raised their kids.  Throw in government conspiracies, Hunter S. Thompson, day-glo nightlife, a speed-crutched Neal Cassidy, Hell’s Angels, and mental meltdowns, and you have the ultimate American Dream.

  1. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

This is the first book on the list that I saw first as as a movie.  Whatever, I love movies, even if they’re never as good as the book.  This story is fabulous in both forms- it’s about a young twenty-something named Chris McCandless who graduates from college, and instead of following his upper-middle class parents’ wishes to continue on with law school, he burns all of his money and takes off into middle America in his yellow datsun.  He changes his name, roams around, takes jobs at McDonald’s and factories, meeting people all over the place but never letting the temporality of human relationships hold him back from finding the divine.

I loved this book so much, not only because of its wonderful imagery of the US and Alaska- where Chris eventually ends up foraging and hunting on his own, taking shelter from the harsh elements in an old abandoned school bus- but because a younger me identified so greatly with Chris.  He was extremely idealistic, romantic, and didn’t want to fret about frivolous details in life, like what would happen if he ran out of money, if he got lost, or if his car broke down.  He was obsessed with Jack London (kind of like I’ve been with Jack Kerouac), and mainly went to Alaska because of how London described it in his books.  Anyhow, I simply get why McCandless took off on the road, why he approached life in present-day terms, leaving society behind to discover himself.  The fact that he died alone at age 24 is deeply disturbing and reminds me that I have to be more practical in my life pursuits.  However, he died after discovering his personal meaning of life, and having truly lived how he wanted.  That’s more than alot of eighty year-olds can say.

Have you read these five books and, if so, what was your take on them?  What are your favorite travel books and why?  I’d love to hear recommendations.

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