Top Five Travel Books
It has been a long time since I have read a good travel book, so I presented the topic to the Vagabond Journey travel writing community:
What are your top five travel books?
Emery from Reader Travels Vagabond Edition wrote the first wave of her top travel books at A Singular Profound Journey. Dave from The Longest Way Home wrote his favorite travel books in a forum thread about top travel books, and, in hopes of continuing this dialog on travel literature, I have contributed a list of my own favorite travel books below.
This book documents the travels of a group of young hippies in the 70’s, a traveling conservative tech rep, a finance adjuster who criss-crosses the globe for work, as well as descriptions of various other travelers. The story is completely unbelievable — far too many literary leaps of faith are taken — but it does tie together the wanderings of all of the above mentioned elements into a story that takes the personal and societal benefits of traveling as one of its main themes. This books clearly demonstrates the fact that a full life can be lived on the road, and uses fictional examples to show how it can be done.
4.The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin–
The question of the human roots of restlessness lays at the heart of this story, and, although left seeming incomplete, the book does dive into the biological urges that drive people to travel and draws connections between nomadic groups around the world. This is a book to get you wondering why you feel the need to travel as well as reassures you that this urge is completely normal.
3. The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
– If you read behind the words of this book, it is a travel masterpiece. This book demonstrates how to fully take advantage of the social elements of travel. You can see the author working What is most striking about this book — as well as Theroux’s other travel books — is how ordinary his travels are. Theroux is not doing anything special — he is not on a great journey that lesser men could not handle — but he does take extreme effort to make these travels interesting. He is out to meet people, to engage them in conversation, and to make ordinary people into characters. Anyone who has ever really traveled knows how difficult this is to do. Simply put, it is work to constantly be engaging people in conversation and it takes real skill to bring out what is interesting about them, it takes special talent to ask the right questions to provoke a stranger to reveal himself, to become a character in your book.
Almost anybody can write a travel book about a great journey. If I were to summit a hundred mountains, tramp through virgin jungle, search for lost cities, I would easily come out with a travel book. To come out of an ordinary journey conducted through conventional means — the train, taxis, buses — with a real story to tell takes effort, skill, and a lot of hard work. The mastery of Theroux is that he has the ability to bring out the extraordinary within the ordinary and to make a real life journey the star-stuff of fiction.
Theroux is not an adventurer, he is a man at work. Reading his books show clearly how he goes about his work, and, if followed, it can be a recipe of making an ordinary stretch of travel interesting. Traveling is about the people you meet, and no story will arise unless you do the leg work of bringing out what is interesting in the people you meet. This is, perhaps, the unmentioned art of travel writing, and Theroux is the master.
Another thing that I truly respect about Theroux’s travel books is that he presents travel as it really is. I read his books and I think, “Yup, it is really like that,” whereas I read the works of most other travel writers and find myself disgusted with their gross exaggerations, cliche word choices — “It was so bustling” — and how they try to make their simple, regular journey seem like an epic adventure or a spiritual journey. There is little that is epic about modern world travel and I don’t give a shit about someones shallow dip into self importance masked as spirituality. Theroux’s travels are real, I know what he is talking about, it is clear that he has really been there.
2. The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton
– The youthful urge for adventure manifested in travel. Fun to read, this book limits the importance of life down to how well you live it.
1. A Vagabond Journey Around the World, by Harry Franck
–This narrative can be read as a travel manual. Although published a hundred years ago, the approach that the author takes toward traveling and, especially, working while traveling can be used today by modern travelers verbatim. Franck worked his way around the world, he took jobs in wide ranging professions, lived cheap, and was forever on the lookout for employment opportunities. His income, finances, and expenses are central to the book’s story, and, as he had only limited funds coming in at any time, he was required to have a true adventure. Wealth and adventure are inversely proportional, and this is never more evident than when Franck virtually walked a ring around planet earth.
Travel and money are directly connected, and I cannot respect a travel book that does not take finances into account. I truly hate travel books where the author either has some mysterious income source, is so wealthy that the costs of things do not matter, or decides to completely ignore the real life issues of commerce in exchange for presenting some sort of fairy tale vision of the world. Travel means money, and how a traveler comes up with their funds is a good a travel story as can be had which is why, A Vagabond Journey Around the World is, and probably always will be, my top travel book.
I look at my above list and laugh at the mainstream acceptance of many of my choices. Besides my top two results, the other three are not obscure books in the least, and I fear that it is an overt cliche to include them on such a list in and of itself. But all of the books that I mention above hit at some deep aspect of travel: The Songlines focuses on humanity’s wander roots within the modern context; the Drifters shows how a solid, educational, and respectable life can be lived out on the road; Theroux shows the leg work needed make a story out of a journey; Halliburton clutches and exposes the deep urge to travel and what can be done with it; and Franck shows the work ethic, drive, and determination needed to give a journey life.
These are my top travel books, from Wade Shepard, an 11 year vagabond.
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