Six great beach reads for travelers

There’s a special joy that comes with losing yourself in a good book while relaxing on a beach. The warm sun on your skin, the sand between your toes, and the sound of waves gently breaking on the shore create the perfect environment for shrugging off your cares and transporting yourself to a new world. Here are a few of my favorite travel books – perfect picks for an easy summer read no matter what your style.

If you’re looking for a trashy novel. . .
Summer beach reading should be light, fun, and maybe a little tawdry. Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? fits the bill perfectly. The subtitle, A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism, describes the plot quite well. The book tells the story of Kohnstamm’s first guidebook-writing assignment for Lonely Planet. He gives up his apartment, job, and girlfriend to travel to and write about northern Brazil and soon realizes he’s in far over his head. What follows is a hilarious and controversial account of his adventures, how he learns the ropes of guidebook writing, and just how guidebooks are created.

If you’re looking for a travel-writing how-to. . .
Rolf Potts’ Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Recollections from One Decade as a Post-Modern Travel Writer is perfect for the aspiring travel writer, or anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a travel story. The book includes some of Potts’ published work (well-written, insightful, and entertaining stories on their own), followed by interesting end notes about how each story came about, from what really happened and what didn’t make it into the final copy to the long road from experience to published article.

If you’re looking for an inspiring story. . .
If you dream of one day taking charge of your life and pursuing your passions, Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story is for you. The story traces the creation of the Lonely Planet empire, from Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s decision to take an overland journey from Europe to Australia to the publishing of their first guidebook and the subsequent failures and triumphs of the company. Even if your goals don’t involve building one of the top travel book publishing companies in the world, the story of chasing your dreams and finding success will inspire you.

If you’re looking for a good laugh. . .
Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away is a quick beach read that will keep you laughing all afternoon. Based on the hilarious writer’s newspaper column, the short stories point out the idiosyncrasies and oddities of life in America. From dealing with the Post Office to the difficulties of preparing a tax return, the book perfectly captures small town life in America and pokes fun at some of the country’s stranger traditions. The chapters are all quite short, perfect if you’ve got kids to mind and can’t commit to lengthier reading periods.

If you’re looking for a collection of short stories. . .
The Best American Travel Writing series has been combining great travel stories and narratives from websites, magazines, and newspapers, and putting them in one place for nearly a decade. The 2008 edition was edited by Anthony Bourdain and covers everything from restaurants in Kabul to weddings in St. Petersburg. With a dozen or so unique tales from different voices in each book, the collection will satisfy your need for short story variety and entertain you with engrossing travel narratives.

If you’re looking for intellectual stimulation. . .
If you’re the type who loves reading about research and studies, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World is right up your alley. Weiner set off to explore what makes us happy, and how economic conditions, culture, and traditions in various countries make people happy (or not). Along the way he visits countries like Iceland, India, Bhutan, Moldova and Thailand to see just how happy or unhappy the people are, and why. Along with being a fascinating and educational read, it also happens to be pretty darn funny too.

Book Review: “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner

Add another page to the “Why Didn’t I Think of That?” file.

The concept is so elegantly simple: take what is arguably the top two human aspirations – happiness and travel – combine them, then flesh out a book proposal. I bet that book deal was inked on the strength of the overview alone.

Thusly inspired, I’m already 2,000 words into my latest book proposal about Lamborghinis and orgasms, but I digress…

“The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Twelve), a memoir/travelogue by Eric Weiner, beautifully blends the timeless search for happiness with an amusing on-the-ground examination of the dispositions of people in 10 of the most (and least) contented countries on Earth.

A confessed “mope”, Weiner (coincidentally pronounced ‘whiner’ – ki ki ki!) admits straight off that he’s a hard sell on happiness. You’d be too after two decades working as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, reporting on wars, disasters and the ancillary misery. Untold years of introspection, therapy and a metric ton of self-help books have yielded little progress and having recently entered the Heart Attack Years, he confesses that his happiness attainment optimism is flagging.

Stick around after the review to see how you can get your hands on a copy of the book for free, just in time for Christmas!

His epic quest for bliss starts in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where Weiner plunders an encyclopedic database of worldwide happiness levels, maintained by noted happiness researcher Professor Ruut Veenhoven. Conveniently, the Dutch make a good showing on the happiness index, what with their cycling, prostituting, soft drugging ways, so Weiner starts his research immediately by making a beeline for the nearest hash bar.

Though it was good hash (the Moroccan), it fell short of being the key to his happiness. So Weiner dons his journalist tights and cape and sets out on months of travel to happy places (Iceland, Switzerland, Bhutan, Thailand) and a few unhappy places (Moldova, Slough [U.K.]), where he conducts interviews to uncover what makes these people so happy/unhappy.

Weiner does an enviable job of balancing his travelogue with what must have been painstaking research, while maintaining a light and humorous tone. Two decades of jet setting journalism has put a finish on his writing style that is at once worldly and polished without becoming tedious or snobbish. His insight, careful consideration and occasional epiphanies show that while he may not have achieved everlasting happiness (yet), his exhaustive pursuit of it has made him extremely well-versed in the theory.

Does he find the key to bliss? Well, you’re gonna have to buy the book. But I will offer that while reading this book, not only did I get a good read on my own happiness (which was unexpectedly high), but I also gleaned a rather surprising number of tips to making myself even more happy. Though I can tell you from personal experience that gleaning tips and utilizing tips are two very different things.

“The Geography of Bliss” is due out in hardcover in January of ’08, exquisitely timed for when everyone’s post-holiday letdown starts taking hold. Pre-order it for your favorite grumpy travel enthusiast now.

Want to win a copy? It’s easy. Here’s how:

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