WHEN I CAN’T AFFORD TO TRAVEL, I find myself casting about for cheaper ways to discover something new about myself and the world. The obvious choice is to buy a new book. But not all books serve as doorways into new worlds. Some are like comfort food. Some books are no better than looking at a friend’s vacation photos: sure, it’s new, but there’s nothing about them that changes the way you think.
There are travel books, and then there are books that have the same effect on you as travel. Here are four of the latter.
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts
Travel is one of the few human activities that is heavy on awe. It’s easy to look at the world with a sense of wonder when you enter a foreign temple, or watch the sun rise over a mountain, or sea a storm sweeping in from the ocean. The day-to-day world, however, is light on these feelings. It’s even rarer that a feeling of true awe comes from within the pages of a book. One book that pulls it off is Alan Watts’ classic The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.
My mother bought me The Book as a Christmas present, and when I saw it, I was annoyed that she had bought me a self-help book. But then I got bored one day and cracked it open. I’m no longer sure it’s a self-help book. If it is, it’s the most effective self-help book ever written. But I also don’t want to cheapen The Book by shoe-horning it into a genre it transcends.
The idea behindThe Book is simple: years ago in Japan, parents would customarily give their children a “pillow book” on the occasion of their marriage, which taught the children the basics of sex. It’s a way for parents to avoid discussing sex, which was a taboo topic of conversation. Watts believes that a new book is appropriate for the great taboo of Western Civilization: knowing who you are, and what your place is in the universe. What he then presents is one of the most awesome ways of looking at yourself and the world I’ve ever read.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs
One of my favorite moments while I travel is that “aha!” moment when I finally begin to understand something that has always eluded me. You can hear about a place or an experience second hand, but not truly be able to grasp it. Then, when you get there and suddenly understand what all the fuss has been about, it’s like a light has been turned on.
No book I’ve recently read has felt more like an “aha!” than Stranger Than We Can Imagine. Life was not easy to make sense of after the 20th century. Newtonian physics were undermined by relativity and quantum mechanics. Art was undermined by virtually inexplicable modern art. Politics suddenly went insane. Psychology changed everything we thought we knew about the human mind. And strange and terrifying new ideas like nihilism and objectivism began to take hold.
In Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs tries to make sense of all of the weirdest ideas of the 20th century so that we might start to understand the challenges of the 21st. In doing so, he clearly explains some of the most stupefying ideas in the world (you’ll finally kinda sorta understand the theory of relativity by the time you’re done with the first chapter), and helps you reorient the world so it finally starts to make sense again.
Promethea by Alan Moore
The moments of travel that have stuck with me the longest have been the ones that I couldn’t make sense of at the time. They were the ones that took months to process, but out of which a new me grew.
Alan Moore is most famous for his subversive superhero comic book Watchmen and his revolutionary classic V for Vendetta, but his less popular stuff is just as weird and just as mind-bending. Promethea might be the strangest: on its face, it’s another superhero book, about a schoolgirl who can turn into a demigoddess, but once you get deeper into it, it turns into a bizarre look into Alan Moore’s mind: about how language and magic are the same thing, about how science and art are inextricably linked, and about how the “apocalypse” we fear might not be a bad thing.. The ideas are strange (and sometimes incomprehensible), but it stays in your head for months afterwards, and it’ll slowly start to make you look at the world in a new way.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
There’s something about being in a new place that makes you look at the world totally differently. You’re more alert, and you notice things that you would never notice if you were back in the grind in your hometown. There’s one book — the only one on this list that could be called a travel book — that makes you feel the same way: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Douglas Adams’ classic manages to change the way you look at the world through the sheer weirdness of its language. With lines like, “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t,” and, “There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss,” it’s hard not to read this book and feel as if there’s an entire way of looking at the world that you’re missing out on.