Last week I wrote a list of six books that would be terrible to read while traveling. This week, my editors asked me to do the opposite, to come up with a list of books that would be fantastic to read while traveling. This is much harder, and because of differing tastes, languages, etc, I cannot write a universal list of six books that would be good to read while traveling.
The best I can do is write a list of six books that I would like to read while traveling, and maybe you’ll like them too. Note, please, that on the whole these are not travel-specific books; in some cases, they do not mention traveling at all. You will not find Eat, Pray, Love here. I am quite vehement about that. They are, however, books about place and about our reactions to the world we live in, and while those are broad categories, I think they make for good travel reading.
Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean
To keep things relatively kosher, the first book on this list is actually a book about traveling. It is Fitzroy Maclean’s memoir of his times abroad as a British soldier and diplomat in the thirties and forties. This is someone who traveled undercover in Soviet Central Asia, fought in the Western Desert Campaign, was present at the infamous Stalinist purges of the thirties (really, reading those chapters alone is worth hunting down this book for), camped with Tito and the partisans, and in general must have lived one of the more fascinating lives of the twentieth century.
Luckily for the rest of us, he’s a brilliant raconteur, and tells about all of this extremely vividly with a sort of self-effacing Scottish dry wit. Though I don’t think it’s widely available, I bought a 1964 edition of it by chance in a used book shop to have something to do while waiting for a job interview, and it was four dollars really well spent. Maclean was a Hero of the old guard, all solid-chap, for god and country, etc, etc, and while I am decidedly not (nor do I want to be), it’s really great fun to read.
Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne
David Byrne, the weird brilliance behind the Talking Heads, recently wrote a book about biking and cities. The premise is: David Byrne has ridden his bike in a lot of cities (Detroit, Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires…) and he would like to tell you about it. In practice, this book is basically David Byrne’s wildly careening monologue to you about things he finds cool / strange / worth arguing about.
He talks about Otto Muehl’s bizarre sex-art, about pre-wallfall West Berlin, about British cultural stereotypes, about the reclusive founder of Kodak. There are photographs he’s taken, memories of riding his bike to clubs in New York in the eighties before biking became the trend du jour, and headings like “What is music for?” If someone like David Byrne wants to write a few paragraphs entitled “What is music for?” I would very much like to read them.
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
I first read Dharma Bums when I was fifteen in a desert in Texas, and at the time it burned a hole in my head and I thought I’d found the answer to everything. In Kerouac’s traditional thinly-veiled autobiographical style, he writes about his time on the west coast of the USA with the environmentalist poet Gary Snyder.
There is wine drinking, there is group sex, there is Ginsberg reading Howl, there is mountain climbing in the high Sierras, there is fire lookout duty and living out of orange crates, and Kerouac writes about all of it with both a great ebullient love and a sort of sadness that’s hard to place. I no longer look to Kerouac as the God of Everything, but Dharma Bums remains my favourite of his books, and if you haven’t read Dharma Bums and are planning a roadtrip across America, you should take it with you.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
With the definitive edition published in 1892, Leaves of Grass is the oldest book on this list. It is Whitman’s rambling poetic opus, unabashedly and unironically in love with the experience of being alive in the then fledgling country of the US of A. I am an immigrant to North America, and Walt Whitman is one of the reasons I am proud to call myself an American. There are “songs” about the open road, about individuality, about democracy, about friendship, about being gay, about church steeples, about all sorts of great things.
On the pragmatic side, because Whitman remains one of the most famous American poets, you can buy this four-hundred-page collection in any American airport for $7.99 (more poems per dollar!). You also don’t have to read it in any sort of linear fashion. You can open at any poem and start reading and it’ll be great. Whitman tends to ramble in long-worded lines for pages, and then you’ll read something like “Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me, the sunlight expands my blood?” and you’ll feel like someone kicked you in the face in the best way possible.
Anything by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson might be the world’s answer to airport-layover reading. His travelogues are self-effacingly witty, easy to read, and very thoroughly researched, so you may actually learn random but fascinating facts about Australia and the Appalachian Trail while waiting for a red-eye in Chicago O’Hare.
His books are super accessible, so you can read them for as long as you have time for and then pick them up where you left off the next time and not be confused, which, given how I’ve felt waiting for red-eyes in Chicago O’Hare, is a huge plus. Caveat: You may sometimes giggle out loud and the French stewardess sitting next to you on the plane may give you a dirty look and mutter “Bitch” under her breath. (This has never happened to me.)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is a children’s book that you are probably familiar with. Since its publication in 1943, it’s been translated into over 250 languages and become one of the best-selling books ever written. People get whimsical tattoos of its illustrations. While I am not necessarily suggesting that you get a whimsical tattoo of The Little Prince, I am suggesting that sometimes things become famous because they’re really, really good.
You should take it with you and read it when you’re waiting for a train in Zagreb. You should read it to your children. Barring that, you should find someone else’s children and read it to them. You should read it to your grandmother, who will probably tell you that it’s old hat (in my case, it was my grandmother who read it to me). You shouldn’t read it all the time, lest it become boring, which would be the worst, but you should read it.