It is eerie how many of the books that have exploded my old world and created a new one have been travel books. Maybe it’s because the stories that change you aren’t really the ones where people stay at home, or maybe it has to do with my personal temperament — but by my count, there are five travel books which have already changed my life.
1. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
For me, a love of travel started with a love of the sea. My uncle was a boat captain, and whenever we’d visit him in Florida, we’d go out, 20, 30, 50 miles into the Gulf of Mexico for deep sea fishing. We’d pull up sharks, marlin, kingfish, and grouper. We’d watch flying fish skip over the surface of the water near our boat and we’d watch dolphins play in our wake.
When, at 10, I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, it merely confirmed and put into words what I’d already felt intuitively: that by leaving home and stepping onto a boat, I’d inevitably find adventure and, possibly, my fortune. In retrospect, that appears to have been the case: when I was 20, instead of going to Spain or England for a study abroad program, I went on Semester at Sea, and it was there that I began to write about travel. It’s no chest of gold, but adulthood and all the rationality that comes with it has not erased the tiny, fluttery thrill that comes with stepping on a boat.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
I opened Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas while I was literally in the car on the way to college for the first time. It was a 7-hour drive, and I’d nearly finished it by the end. Thompson’s writing crackled off the page, and I, like so many other college-age kids, would assume that his talent came from the drugs and alcohol, rather than in spite of it, for several years, and would make a few mistakes as a result of that misapprehension.
But the book lingered with me in a bigger way — first, it sent me out on road trips for the next four years with my roommate. We estimated, at one point, that we’d spent over 300 hours in the car together exploring. And second, it made me switch my major from film to journalism.
3. The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara
I first read Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s memoirs of his travels with his friend Alberto Granado when I was traveling myself. Guevara, who would later become famous as the iconic face of the Cuban Revolution and as a committed Marxist insurgent, first became radicalized while driving a rickety motorcycle through the South American countryside. He saw poverty and exploitation and resilience and strength, and this slowly turned him into the man we now know as “Che.”
At the time, I had been traveling through impoverished countries like South Africa and India, and I was feeling similar political stirrings as I was confronted with a world that did not seem to be as just as I once thought it was. Reading The Motorcycle Diaries did two things: it confirmed those feelings, and it served as a cautionary tale. Guevara the revolutionary would later become Fidel Castro’s main executioner in Havana. The passion that led to The Motorcycle Diaries, it seemed, could lead down much darker avenues as well.
4. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In 2010, after a particularly rough year, I decided to pull a Chris McCandless and abandon my home and job in search of adventure. McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp,” famously left his home and job at the age of 22, told no one where he was going, and wandered the country for two years before dying in Alaska.
I, like McCandless, was disgusted with the society around me and was sick of working menial, no-dignity jobs for low wages. So I started packing up and making plans, until my dad sat me down.
“Matt,” he said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna be like that guy from Into the Wild,” I said.
My dad sagged. “Matt, that guy died.”
He talked me down and a few months later, I applied for grad school. McCandless is right: When things are intolerable, you have to make a change. But maybe he didn’t have to be so reckless.
5. Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen
It may be premature to say this book changed the course of my life, but all of the other books on this list have something in common — they put words to a feeling I couldn’t describe, and, in revealing that truth, set me down a new road. Suzy Hansen’s book on being an American in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East was just released earlier this year, and it’s the most clear-eyed account I’ve ever read of being an American abroad.
For years, I’ve been working as a writer at a travel site, and we like to talk up how amazing the world is. It’s not false, it’s just incomplete — anything that’s wondrous is also a bit terrible. And as an American, a citizen of the largest empire of our time, it can be upsetting, jarring, and depressing to see the reach that our foreign policy has had on people we never even think about.
Travel confronts you with the humanity of the people living in the hardest possible situations — and knowing that they may, in part, be in those situations because of your country is devastating. It is the type of devastation that demands change. We will see where it takes me.