The only thing that can get me through periods of inertia when I can’t travel is a good book. Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. Over the years, great books have inspired me to travel but have also filled in my gaps in knowledge about places I’m probably not brave enough to visit, like Congo or Afghanistan.
For $20 or less, I can sit back and enjoy reading about someone else’s discomfort, and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. What follows is a highly subjective list of my 25 favorite contemporary travel narratives. Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments section.Paul Theroux
The Great Railway Bazaar- This classic ’70s account of Theroux’s epic train journey across Europe and Asia was Theroux’s first travel narrative and it’s still one of his best works. But he paid a price: when he returned home from the trip, his wife had taken up with another man.
The Old Patagonian Express- In this vividly reported, often humorous book, Theroux rides the rails from Boston to Patagonia, save for a flight across the Darien Gap. Last year, Rachel Pook, a Theroux fan, blogged about her in the journey retracing Theroux’s trip.
The Happy Isles of Oceania- In the wake of a divorce and a health scare, Theroux traveled via collapsible kayak to 51 islands in the South Pacific. As always, Theroux tells the story of his own voyage intermingled with tidbits on the local culture and vignettes about notable South Pacific expats, like Paul Gauguin.
Dark Star Safari- Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic.
Siberian Dawn- This is a beautifully written, addictive adventure story about a daring road trip across Siberia.
Facing the Congo- What sane person takes a wooden pirogue and a series of barges up the Congo River? Tayler does and lives to tell about it. To his credit, Tayler took this trip and the Siberian Dawn adventure out of desperation, with no book deal in hand.
Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing- In this perceptive, funny book, Tayler travels through obscure corners of Russia and China, shedding light on places few Western writers bother to visit.
Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel- Tayler’s adventures in the Sahel provide insights into an overlooked but fascinating part of the world.
Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Round Ireland with a Fridge, and One Hit Wonderland- Tony Hawks- All three of these books describe journeys taken to fulfill gimmicky bets: could Hawks track down and beat all the Moldovan national soccer players at tennis, could he hitchhike around Ireland with a small fridge, and could he write a song that charts somewhere in the world. They’re all completely contrived, but great fun nonetheless.
Lost Continent- Bill Bryson- Bill Bryson’s search for the perfect small American town. His first travel book is still probably his best and certainly his funniest.
Four Corners- Kira Salak- A page-turner about a bold trip in the footsteps of British explorer Ivan Champion through Papau New Guinea. An impressive journey for anyone to undertake, but particularly gutsy for a single female traveler.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals- J. Maarten Troost- Troost tags along with his wife who got a job on a remote Pacific atoll and the result is perhaps the funniest travel book ever written.
A Way to See the World- Tom Swick- A terrific collection of travel stories from Tom Swick, a great writer who can capture the essence of a place in a few pages while making just about any place seem interesting.
The Village of Waiting- George Packer- If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote African village, look no further than this great read.
River Town- Peter Hessler- Hessler’s outstanding, often hilarious account of life as a volunteer (Peace Corps) English teacher in a provincial Chinese city reveals a lot about China and Chinese culture.
Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson- Ferguson has a great sense of humor and this account of his hitchhiking adventure across the length of Japan along the trail of the blooming Cherry Blossoms is one of my all-time favorite travel books.
Sean and David’s Long Drive- Sean Condon- A riotously funny account of a lad’s road trip across Australia.
Stealing from a Deep Place- Brian Hall- This 80’s classic recounts Hall’s bike trip across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the waning days of the Soviet Empire.
The Places In Between- Rory Stewart- A superbly written account of a ballsy walk across Afghanistan written by an adventurer turned diplomat.
The Summer of My Greek Taverna- Tom Stone- Brilliant, funny tale about what happens when an American partners with a local taverna owner in Patmos.
Travels In Siberia- Ian Frazier- You might not want to visit Siberia after reading this book, which is about a series of trips Frazier took spanning over a decade, but you won’t want this book to end.
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto- Pico Iyer- Iyer quit his job with Time magazine in New York and went to live in a monastery in Japan. He only lasted a week, but his observations about Kyoto and Japanese culture are fascinating.
Blood River- Tim Butcher- I read this book and still have no idea how Daily Telegraph reporter Tim Butcher made it out of the Congo alive. This is a must read.