Books! Travelers share what to read on the road

book, books
There’s nothing like a trip for catching up on your reading. Even if you’ve filled your schedule with dawn-to-dusk sightseeing, there are still quiet moments at the hotel or by the pool, not to mention those long flights. So what’s best to read while traveling? On Saturday I’m heading to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months, so this has been on my mind. I asked a bunch of seasoned travelers what’s in their pack. Their suggestions fall into several overlapping categories.

Disposable
Most agree it’s best to bring books you don’t feel the need to bring back. Not only does this give you a chance to pick up something unexpected at a book exchange, it also frees up space for souvenirs. You can also give reading material away, as Catherine Bodry explains, “I always treat myself to magazines at the airport (People, Runners World, Oxygen, Nat Geo Traveler, etc.) and I usually stockpile a few issues of the New Yorker from the weeks prior to a trip. They also make great gifts if I’m headed to a censored country like China!”

Entertaining
Some people go for light, unchallenging reads. Annie Scott Riley says, “I’ll finish anything I’m already reading; usually fiction, but anything I start on vacation has to be just for fun. For example, the Chelsea Handler books, anything Dave Barry, Chuck Klosterman. I guess I like some pop culture commentary to assess what I’m getting away from.”

Educational
Many well-heeled travelers bring books that teach them about the places they’ll see. Mike Barish says, “While in Hawaii earlier this month, I read Blue Latitudes about Cook’s voyages in the Pacific Islands.” Laurel Kallenbach says, “It can be nice to read Yeats in Ireland, Shakespeare in England. I lived for a few weeks in the French village of Ferney-Voltaire, so I read Voltaire’s Candide there–and then toured the author’s castle.”

Variety
Many people like to have a variety of books. Mary Jo Manzanares finds her ereader handy. “Before leaving I load it up with a bunch of books from a variety of genres, then I can pick and choose what to ready while on the road. I like a variety of reading–something light for the airplane or on the beach (a mystery or chick lit), something historical when I’m on site, and I can also read blogs, magazines, and newspapers on it as well. Last year while staying in the middle of a vineyard in Tuscany I saw that one of my favorite authors had just released his new book–just a minute later I was able to download and read it. Best of all, I can take all this reading with me and take up no space at all.”Small
With ever-increasing baggage fees, it’s best to bring something small. I prefer mass-market paperbacks, leaving the hefty hardbacks at home. Like Manzanares, Gadling cruise correspondent Chris Owen saves space with ebooks. “On cruises, we read a book a day so long sailings required separate luggage just for the books. iPads changed all that, especially now that our local public library offers books online too.”

So what’s in my pack?
English language books are in limited supply where I’m going, and many tend to be foreign imports at Western prices, so I’m bringing a two-month supply. They are:

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad: A thick, fast-paced classic in a mass market edition that I can leave behind. I can always find another copy.

Eating the Flowers of Paradise: A Journey through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen by Kevin Rushby: A fascinating study of qat, the drug of choice in the Horn of Africa. It’s impossible to understand the culture without understanding qat.

The Bible: I’m an agnostic, but as a professional historian I can’t ignore one of the most influential books ever written. I haven’t read it for more than a decade so it’s due for a reread, especially since I’ll be spending most of my time in a Muslim town. Muslims read the Bible too, and I just reread the Koran last year.

Thus Spake Prophet Muhammad: These selections from the Hadith are in a tiny little edition I picked up in India. It can’t hurt to brush up on my knowledge of Islam if I’m going to live in a Muslim town.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre: Hararis are a philosophical bunch, and I rarely pick up this sort of heavy reading when I’m at home working. I’m sure someone over there will want it when I’m done.

The Best Stories and Tales of Leo Tolstoy: This is actually an Ethiopian edition I picked up when I was last in Harar. I’m nearly done with it but I want to give it to a friend.

Articles about Harari history and culture: I printed some of these out and have dozens of them on a thumb drive if I want to print out any at an Internet cafe. I also made copies onto two CDs for some Harari friends.

Amharic dictionary and phrasebook

Brandt Guide to Ethiopia

What do you bring to read on the road? Share your bookish habits in the comments section!