Reading has always been a way to take yourself on a journey. For periods of otherwise boring days, you can be transported to magical lands, far off galaxies, or in the case of travel novels, all over this beautiful planet of ours. The best travel writers are the ones who can take you on the journey with them and ignite a fire to get back out there and visit somewhere new. Over the years I’ve read my fair share of books, especially travel-related, both the obscure and the must-reads. Scholars of travel writing will know these to be classics, however, they are classics for a reason and therefore I feel they are an essential place to start.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
There is something so elegant and civilized about train travel, especially in this day and age. Stunning rail stations conveniently located in city centres, lacking the aeroplane style boarding and with no need to wait for baggage at the other end, rail travel is the epitome of ease. Paul Theroux’s travel diary published in 1975 tells the story of train travel from the UK to south-east Asia and back again. Some of the world’s most famous rail lines, some of which don’t even exist anymore, are described in a compelling story that evokes the imagination of readers and makes you want to get on a train headed anywhere. My copy of this book is often a fixture of my weekend pack, often read on a train journey headed somewhere new, with anticipation for the next adventure on my mind and the view of the countryside speeding by.
“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”
– Paul Theroux
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The original American travel novel, first published in 1957, evokes a tale of self-discovery and carefree adventure across the US. Many travel quotes you find scrawled across hostels, maps and journals worldwide originated from this book, many of them prophecies to what today’s world of travelling has become. This story is not one of the conventional aeroplanes, hotels and restaurants, but one of the experiences of the true adventure of setting out on the road without even a destination in mind.
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
– Jack Kerouac
What Kind of Life by Jon Thum
This one is less of a widely considered classic but is my favourite of all. Jon captures perfectly the feeling of restlessness that encaptures a traveller as they return from home, pouring every effort they have into getting to the next adventure. His transparent storytelling conveys an honesty and an openness that even the best travel writing occasionally will omit. The book carries you through the early travels of his youth and into middle age as he struggles to leave the nomadic life behind, an all too relatable and emotionally conflicting experience.
“What great fortune it is to have such times in your life to reflect and take stock! How important it is to make way for it!
Yet how few people, when burdened with the day to day or hand to mouth, can say with all honesty that this is something they possess? How many of us will keep marching onwards with no real grasp of the where or the why?”
– Jon Thum
Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson
In truth, nearly any one of Bryson’s books could be on this list. From A Walk in the Woods which details his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US to his all too honest Down Under which details his (mis)adventures and observations throughout Australia. Neither Here nor There is a travelogue story that interweaves his first experience travelling through Europe after college, and his attempt to recreate it twenty years later. All of Bryson’s stories are told with brilliant observations and witty humour with a sense of adventure in-between.
“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.”
– Bill Bryson
Anyone of these reads will inspire you to set off on your next adventure and are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel writing that is essential reading. I will be making these a regular post as I come across more books, articles and stories that I think every traveller would enjoy. If you have a suggestion for writing you think is a must-read, comment and I will happily check it out!