For someone who has travelled so much, I rarely read traditional travel books. I have never read Bill Bryson or any books by Theroux, though I enjoyed his ‘Why We Travel‘ piece in the New York Times this year. Perhaps because I favour fiction. Perhaps because I want to make up my own mind, avoid colouring my perception of a place. Mostly there’s no real reason, it just worked out that way.
Before I go to a country, I like to read literature and stories that take place there or whose authors are from that place. I’m reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple right now. My first longing for India was kindled when I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I was seventeen or eighteen. I had never been anywhere except in books. Like most bookish youth, I was inspired to travel by reading Kerouac’s On The Road. That that statement is a cliché does not diminish the power of that reading experience.
Reading is a type of travel, of course, and my favourite books are those that describe a journey, either physically or interiorly. In that way, I would call Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy a class of travel literature. If you can make me feel the heat and thirst of the desert from my rainy day in the Pacific Northwest, then you have transported me somewhere. All books are travel books. My definition is flexible and boundless, which is useful when travelling.
My Favourite Travel Books
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.
Have you ever thought about walking? What it is, where it came from, what it means? Its significance and evolution over time and space and place? Me neither. Until I met a man in Peru who was walking from Argentina to Panama. “Walking you say?” I said to him. Walking!
Crazy bastard is now my husband and we’re about to take a long walk through India so you could say it’s on my mind a little.
Solnit’s book is an explanatory elegy. Brimming with vastly researched curiosities and a variety of perspectives, somehow Solnit has written a beautiful and thoughtful homage to the most mundane and common of human conditions. Walk to your local bookstore – or, better yet, a bookstore a hundred miles away – and pick up a copy right now.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel by Rachael Antony and Joël Henry.
Believe it or not, travel can be boring. Those with a deep and restless wanderlust tire quickly of the beaten track, the beentheredonethat. Sometimes you need to break the mold, get funky with your journey.
Or, like me, you find yourself back at home and fidgety, stuck in the nine to five and and an all too familiar city. You come across this book and it proposes the mind-blowing concept that you don’t need a lot of money and you don’t need to go very far to go very far. It changes the way you see everything. You begin experimenting at once.
There’s the experiment where you spend 24 hours in an airport without getting on a plane. Or the Anachronistic Adventure where you step back in time and experience travel from another era. It helps to know someone with a penny-farthing or a hot-air balloon.
My personal favourite is Barman’s Knock where all that’s required is a wallet and some dutch courage. You go into your favourite bar and order your beverage of choice. You drink it – of course! – then you ask the bartender where their favourite watering-hole is located and what their tipple is. You go there. You drink it. You repeat. Ad nauseam.
This experiment is a good one because it often inadvertently leads to some of the other experiments in the book such as Nostalgia Trip, Slow Return Travel, Trip Poker and Voyage to the End of the Line. Fantastic!
Molloy by Samuel Beckett.
Molloy is a vagrant, limping and crawling and bicycling from town to town, in search of his mother’s bed through a dark and impenetrable forest of filth and destitution and the paucity of words.
It’s Beckett. It’s the most incredible novel I have ever read but it’s not a novel: it’s a feat, it’s a test of endurance, it’s a miracle of the mind.
Yes, my progress reduced me to stopping more and more often, it was the only way to progress, to stop.
In me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.
Cool Memories by Jean Baudrillard.
The Cool Memories series is the French theorist’s most accessible work in the sense that they are collections of succinct thought-fragments: astute, razor-sharp and more complex than their brevity implies. Again, they escape a traditional interpretation of travel literature but they were produced as Baudrillard moved through the world, and they reveal so much about it.
She left for Frankfurt by a different flight. The modern forms of transit which create unprecedented opportunities immediately destroy them by the same means. The media inform us; airports separate us.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara.
Talk about someone who went on a journey. To see a man when he was not the eventual, infamous man but the humble, beginning of the man he would become. To be privy to that genesis through a private travel journal is extraordinary.
Who knows who you might wind up when you leave your front door and set out in search of adventure?
Tunnel Kids by Lawrence Taylor.
I studied anthropology in college and Lawrence Taylor was one of my professors. His ethnography about the children who live – and die – in the tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border is a reminder that not everyone is entitled to the freedom of movement that so many of us take for granted.
Many of these children have made harrowing journeys through South and Central America before they even arrive at the border in search of a passage to what they believe is freedom. Anyone who travels should make themselves aware of what a privilege it is to be in the possession of a passport.
Full Tilt: from Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy.
I just cannot say enough wonderful things about this extraordinary Irish woman. I single out Full Tilt simply because it is her first travel book but I am currently devouring a later trip that she took to India – a return journey, in fact, with her five year old daughter.
Murphy wouldn’t call herself courageous because bravery is doing something you are afraid of and she describes herself as fearless. I do not disagree. If I could take an ounce of her spirit, outlook and approach with me to India then I’ll be grand, as they say at home – not a bother!
A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Boland.
Another Irish woman I admire deeply is the poet Eavan Boland. Perhaps the most important journey we will ever experience and traverse is the becoming of our self, the becoming of the self we desire to be.
I’m fascinated by the creative process, its steps, switch-backs, developments and detours. There is no single direction, according to Boland, no one map. This book travels into the past and negotiates an often contradictory present and future.
What she calls her Maps are those women poets who went before her, those trailblazers of a male-dominated terrain: Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Other Sylvia Plath. Her final Destination is a Letter to a Young Woman Poet – to herself. Her movements through those places are driven by a question posed by Rilke that consumes me too:
Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?
Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will by Judith Schalansky.
There are places I will never go. There is not enough time and money and, frankly, desire. Travelling is exhausting. It is essential – my identity is profoundly wrapped up in it – but it is tiring and overwhelming and there are some places I am content to travel from my armchair.
Atlas of Remote Islands is so, so beautiful. Its pages take my breath away; their loveliness is enough for me and I am happy, in fact, to know that there are unspoiled, little-known pockets of the planet left.
Besides, I’m saving my pennies for the Moon or Jupiter.