Traveling can be a life-changing experience. When we are exposed to different cultures, our perceptions of ourselves and the world changes, and we become better citizens. Overcoming the challenges we face on the road can make us more resilient and adaptable. The list of amazing byproducts could go on. Luckily, for those of us who aren’t currently out on an adventure, reading about travel can be as transformative as travel itself. Books help articulate for us how traveling instills a sense of common humanity, no matter how different people, cultures, or countries appear to be. These five underrated books capture how traveling can be more than just fun, it can change our values and who we are, as well as heal and soothe the soul.
1. Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris
Part one of Lands of Lost Borders opens with the Annie Dillard quote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and so, the scene is set for Kate Harris’ eloquently written travel memoir. This is an account of Harris’ journey by bicycle along the Silk Road with her childhood friend. Harris puts into words the indomitable urge to travel — that innate restlessness — in such a relatable way. She illustrates that transformative travel need not be inspired only by the desire for self-discovery or an emotional crisis, but that it instead can be for the joy of adventure, the pursuit of insight, or the delight of curiosity. Science, philosophy, and literature are woven effortlessly throughout the adventure travel narrative, and Harris even touches on the power of books for quelling or inspiring our dreams. There is so much enthusiasm and passion in her writing — it will undoubtedly stir the adventurer in all.
2. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche
A sad novel, which nonetheless depicts how exposing ourselves to other cultures can reshape our values and ultimately lead to a more fulfilling life. This is a story of a Québécois filmmaker based in Kigali at the time of the Rwandan genocide. Valcourt — the main character — is cynical and unmotivated, simply going through the motions of daily living. As tensions in Kigali escalate, Valcourt is caught in the turmoil but comes to find a sense of belonging — a home, friendships, community, and a cause. He finds perspective and meaning in his life, in spite of, or perhaps even because of, the atrocities being committed around him. While Valcourt is a fictional character, Courtemanche did actually live in Kigali just prior to the genocide, and you get the sense that he had a powerful experience of his own. You’ll come away from this read with an appreciation of how traveling can change your whole perspective of the world.
3. The Crossway by Guy Stagg
This novel is not your average account of a journey of redemption. Admittedly, the motivation for Guy Stagg’s pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem is the pursuit of healing, although he is initially ashamed to admit it. He hopes that undertaking a hike thousands of kilometers long will be beneficial in coping with mental illness. The Crossway documents his walk and emotional experiences in a frank and honest way while dipping in and out of history and religion as various landmarks are reached.
Stories of a redemptive journey have certainly been told before. Here, however, there is no glorification of traveling as a panacea. There’s no uplifting high of enlightenment of epic proportions. Instead, there is the difficult-to-articulate sense that his journey, and your journey reading alongside, has been necessary and valuable. You’ll be planning your own pilgrimage as you take in his vivid imagery and humbling accounts of the kindness he is shown by generous strangers along the way.
4. The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
In recent years there’s been a lot of intrigue surrounding the high levels of happiness reported by citizens of Scandinavian countries, and how we too might be able to learn from their success. The Year of Living Danishly is Helen Russell’s personal account of taking a risk and uprooting her life for a chance to live in Denmark, which regularly ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. Although initially reluctant to make the move, Russell finds herself dissatisfied with her life in London despite having all the relevant societal markers of happiness — marriage, a flat, and a successful career as a journalist. She encourages us, lightheartedly, to challenge what we believe makes us happy. Cultural differences in levels of trust, work-life balance, social and government support, and of course “hygge” are explored in this gentle introduction to the life-changing power of exploring a foreign land.
5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Read this dazzling, thought-provoking novel and you’ll never hear the word “quality” again without submitting to a small twitch. Amongst other things, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an account of how a road-trip facilitates the unraveling of the carefully composed, socially-appropriate facade of the main character. Admittedly, this does not, on the surface of things, sound so good for the soul. However, this story of a father and son on a summer motorcycle trip is full of philosophical teachings which encourage us to question our own values and ideas of how to live. This is a challenging and multi-layered read that will have you reflecting on your values and rubbing your chin long after you’ve turned the final page.