The best books for would-be travellers

Gary Geddes Author Of Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas
By Gary Geddes

The Books I Picked & Why

Travels with Herodotus

By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Book cover of Travels with Herodotus

Why this book?

I admire the way this brilliant Polish journalist has been able to get inside the head of an ancient traveller and show us not only the incredible insights of this peripatetic predecessor, but also what travel really means. “A journey neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill.” Even more important, he offers one great truth about all writing, but especially history, that there is no truth with a capital T. “The subjective factor, its deforming presence will remain impossible to strain out . . . however evolved our methods, we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but history recounted, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been. This has been the nature of the enterprise always, and the folly may be to believe one can resist it . . .This fact is perhaps Herodotus’s greatest discovery.”

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Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

By George Crane

Book cover of Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

Why this book?

While taking tea with his Buddhist monk neighbour Tsung Tsai, who brings the water to a boil nine times before putting in the tea, George Crane is advised: “Georgie, I am going to travel to China to place a monument on the grave of my master. You are going to come along and write a book about it.” George is flabbergasted: ”Who’s going to give money to an unknown like me to write such a book?” The monk advises him to try and, sure enough, a publisher is found. They set off on this long pilgrimage, transporting a huge granite slab. The journey is full of wonderful moments as these two very different personalities interact, George usually the butt of Tsung Tsai’s humour. One of the book’s secrets: always travel with a friend.

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The Songlines

By Bruce Chatwin

Book cover of The Songlines

Why this book?

Chatwin left his cushy job at Sotheby’s in London to do something far more interesting and important than evaluating and selling rare and precious objects to wealthy collectors. He set out to explore and celebrate the uniqueness of other cultures, in this case, those mysterious dream-tracks which Australia’s Aboriginal peoples memorized, musical maps of their territory, which they sang or recited as they crossed the land from one tract to another. He has a great ear for listening to stories or conversations and, of course, an even better eye for noticing and recording the specifics of landscapes and human behaviour. In addition to inventing a friend, Arkady, as a sort of alter-ego, Chatwin, a witty, self-taught social anthropologist, reminds us of the need to clean our glasses regularly and fine-tune our antennae.

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The Snow Leopard

By Peter Matthiessen

Book cover of The Snow Leopard

Why this book?

We all dream of legendary creatures and undiscovered places, but PM is one who sets out to find them. His daily jottings and observations are what hold my attention: “two little girls in wool boots and bead necklaces, tarry on a corner of the trail to watch us go. . . little ragged stumps on the daybreak sky.” Along the way, he lets us in on some intimate details about his late wife Delores Love. The story of her dying from cancer and the undelivered bowl from Switzerland is almost unbearably moving. His observations are deeply insightful and stirring: “And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on his hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.” So, this is also an inward journey, and a reminder of Mark Twain’s observation that travel and writing about it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

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Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

By Alfred Lansing

Book cover of Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Why this book?

Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctic is spellbinding, sweeping over me like a tsunami. It begins with the loss of the Endurance, crushed in the ice: “she seemed a huge creature suffering and gasping for breath, her sides heaving against the strangling pressure.” An odd narrative with a huge cast of characters and reconstructed from logbooks, notes, and memories of survivors, what is the secret of its success? I have never read a story in which the elements of the natural world exerted such a continuous challenge. Nature sinks the ship, sends a leopard seal loping across the ice in pursuit of a crew member, attempts to freeze the men to death, blocks all escape routes in ice, then, when they do take to the boats, pulls out all the stops in its efforts to swamp the boats with wind, waves, cold, ice, rocks, bergs. Lansing captures the extremes that hook me in. When the ship goes down, to make a bad pun, we are all in the same boat, or on the same ice floe. Life itself is a sinking ship; we all know we are going to die. This, in an odd way, draws me as a reader into that boat, onto that ice floe, wanting to know how these men behaved in such extreme conditions, how they faced an almost inevitable death.

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