The best books for would-be travellers

Who am I?

After writing and editing fifty books and being the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, it’s obvious that I’m not so much a travel writer as a writer who travels a lot and is sometimes compelled to share what he discovers, or fails to discover, along the way. I’m not one of those “lonely tourists with their empty eyes / Longing to be filled with monuments,” that poet P.K. Page describes. I constantly ask myself: “What compels you to abandon the safety and comforts of home for the three Ds of travel: Danger, Discomfort, and Disease?” Itchy feet, insatiable curiosity, or the desire to step outside the ego and the routines of daily life? All of the above. I avoid the Cook’s Tour, travel light, and live on the cheap. 


I wrote...

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas

By Gary Geddes,

Book cover of Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas

What is my book about?

Confucius said those who live within four seas are brothers (or sisters). I take this as gospel, so I could never accept Columbus as the first outsider to reach the Americas. As a kid, I found glass Japanese fishing floats on the beaches in Vancouver carried over here by the Kuroshio Current, so why not boats, explorers, crazy individuals like myself arriving here by accident or design?

Then I discovered the story of Huishen in the records of the Liang Dynasty, an Afghan Buddhist monk, who sailed 20,000 li (7000 miles) to the east in 458 A.D., more than a thousand years before Columbus. I cashed my advance and picked up a visa to Kabul from the Taliban embassy in Islamabad so I could follow Huishen’s ostensible route over the Himalayas to China, across the Taklamakan Desert, then over the Pacific to Canada, the U.S., and Latin America. One thing I hadn’t anticipated along the way was 9/11.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Travels with Herodotus

Gary Geddes Why did I love 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.”

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Travels with Herodotus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Travels with Herodotus records how Kapuscinski set out on his first forays - to India, China and Africa - with the great Greek historian constantly in his pocket. He sees Louis Armstrong in Khartoum, visits Dar-es-Salaam, arrives in Algiers in time for a coup when nothing seems to happen (but he sees the Mediterranean for the first time). At every encounter with a new culture, Kapuscinski plunges in, curious and observant, thirsting to understand its history, its thought, its people. And he reads Herodotus so much that he often feels he is embarking on two journeys - the first his…


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

Gary Geddes Why did I love 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.

By George Crane,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bones of the Master as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1959 a young monk named Tsung Tsai (Ancestor Wisdom) escapes the Red Army troops that destroy his monastery, and flees alone three thousand miles across a China swept by chaos and famine. Knowing his fellow monks are dead, himself starving and hunted, he is sustained by his mission: to carry on the teachings of his Buddhist meditation master, who was too old to leave with his disciple.

Nearly forty years later Tsung Tsai — now an old master himself — persuades his American neighbor, maverick poet George Crane, to travel with him back to his birthplace at the edge…


Book cover of The Songlines

Gary Geddes Why did I love 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.

By Bruce Chatwin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Songlines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Moleskine-bound edition is sold together with a blank Moleskine notebook, for recording your own thoughts and adventures. Perfect for the travel writers of the future.

The Songlines is Bruce Chatwin's magical account of his journey across the length and breadth of Australia, following the invisible and ancient pathways that are said to criss-cross the land. Chatwin recorded his travels in his favourite notebook, which he would usually buy in bulk in a particular stationery shop in Paris. But when the manufacturer went out of business, he was told "Le vrai moleskine n'est plus". A decade after its publication, on…


Book cover of The Snow Leopard

Gary Geddes Why did I love 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.”

By Peter Matthiessen,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Snow Leopard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A beautiful book, and worthy of the mountains he is among' Paul Theroux

'A delight' i Paper

This is the account of a journey to the dazzling Tibetan plateau of Dolpo in the high Himalayas. In 1973 Matthiessen made the 250-mile trek to Dolpo, as part of an expedition to study wild blue sheep. It was an arduous, sometimes dangerous, physical endeavour: exertion, blisters, blizzards, endless negotiations with sherpas, quaking cold. But it was also a 'journey of the heart' - amongst the beauty and indifference of the mountains Matthiessen was searching for solace. He was also searching for a…


Book cover of Endurance

Gary Geddes Why did I love 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.

By Alfred Lansing,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Endurance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day's sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. For ten months the ice-moored Endurance drifted northwest before it was finally crushed between two ice floes. With no options left, Shackleton and a skeleton crew attempted a near-impossible…


You might also like...

Betting on Bernie: A Memoir of A Marriage

By Martha Marks,

Book cover of Betting on Bernie: A Memoir of A Marriage

Martha Marks Author Of Rubies of the Viper

New book alert!

Who am I?

I made my first visit to Pompeii at age seven. That day, I told my parents that I had been there before. It was all very familiar. And that sense of déjà vu has never left me. I feel it whenever I go back to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Roman Forum. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but... As an adult, I’ve returned many times to those places and visited others featured in my books: the Etruscan necropolis at Caere, which was already 1,000 years old at the time of my novels; Athens; and the ancient ports of Piraeus in Greece and Itanos in Crete. I earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern University, taught for many years, and enjoyed a million marvelous experiences, but my lifelong love of ancient Rome is the direct result of that long-ago visit to Pompeii with my parents.

Martha's book list on the Roman Empire in 1st Century AD

What is my book about?

Bernard Marks and Martha Alford met by chance. The odds were long that they would hit it off. That wasn’t in the cards they’d been dealt at birth. But, as gamblers in love, they rolled the dice. And then they worked hard, took risks, caught lucky breaks, built satisfying careers, enjoyed terrific travels, and won their own version of the lottery of life. Over four decades, Lady Luck smiled on them, until one day, she didn’t. Out of the blue, Fortune spun her wheel and taught them that no one is immune to tragedy and heartbreak.

Betting on Bernie is Martha Marks’s memoir of their improbable courtship, happy and prosperous marriage, and not-so-golden “golden years.” It will make you think, wonder, laugh, and cry.

Betting on Bernie: A Memoir of A Marriage

By Martha Marks,

What is this book about?

Bernard Marks and Martha Alford met by chance. No real reason for it, just a series of fluky coincidences. The odds were long that they would hit it off. That wasn’t in the cards they’d been dealt at birth. “It’ll never last,” people whispered after they got engaged. “Poor probability of success” was the general consensus when they married. But Bernie and Martha ignored the naysayers. Gamblers in love, they rolled the dice.

And then they worked hard, took even more risks, caught a few lucky breaks, built satisfying careers, enjoyed terrific travels, and won their own version of the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in explorers, China, and Indigenous Australians?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about explorers, China, and Indigenous Australians.

Explorers Explore 92 books about explorers
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Indigenous Australians Explore 20 books about Indigenous Australians