The best inspirational life-changing memoirs

The Books I Picked & Why

Into the Wild

By Jon Krakauer

Book cover of Into the Wild

Why this book?

Krakauer’s biography of university graduate Chris McCandless shunning his privileged upbringing and heading into the wilds of America immediately triggered memories of my own idealistic anti-authoritarian youth. Chris’s occasional want for self-destructive impulses also magnetically appealed to me, as I expect it would to anyone who has experienced the dangerous allure of edgy, high-risk adventures. Given it’s on the back cover, it’s no spoiler that Chris, wonderfully self-named Alex Supertramp, perishes in Alaska. The advance knowledge of the demise of this beautiful free spirit makes his wanderings across America all the more poignant and painful to read, particularly when it occurs at the point when Chris appears to have finally discovered purpose in his search for meaning. I have never forgotten his story.

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My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why this book?

While writing my own memoir, Durrell’s classic was recommended to me as a great example of how a writer can make every little occurrence meaningful, deploying sharp dialogue and near poetic prose. I confess I picked up this book more as an assignment than for pleasure. But the author’s first paragraph was so hilarious in an understated English way, I was hooked by line four. Durrell writes engagingly of six years of his childhood in Corfu from 1933 to 1939, whereas a boy, Gerald discovers zoology and a unique love of animals. I never thought I’d be glued to a page about rose-beetles, but as this and other creature’s habits start to mirror that of his own family, the story came to life in multiple ways. Corfu provides an idealistically remote and natural setting for his childhood adventure. This tale reminds me yet again that one of the great gifts of travel is the power of time out, in which one’s freewheeling mind, away from the noise of the world, can help capture personal discoveries.

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Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Why this book?

To me, travel writer Bill Bryson represents the world’s yogi-master in literary observational humor. This book is snigger, snigger, chortle, laugh-out-loud funny. Notes from a Small Island is Bill’s first book (I call him Bill because he writes in such a familial way, I feel like I am travelling with him as a friend while reading). Written after the American teacher had spent 20 years living in England, it describes Bryson’s rambling journey around the farms, clifftops, and motorways of the great isle. His observations as an outsider hilariously expose the inanities and insanities of the Brits and their unique cultural habits. ‘Notes’ became a UK bestseller on release in 1992, because the Brits like to laugh at themselves, but any foreigner who has ever visited those wavy green shores, will surely nod along knowingly, sharing in Bill’s confusion about the popularity of warm beer and cold pies and milky tea served with the teabag still in the cup.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cheryl Strayed

Book cover of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Why this book?

As a serial traveler, I am attracted to the word ‘wild’ in a book’s title. Cheryl Strayed’s no-holds-barred rip-roaringly honest autobiography describes her eleven-hundred-mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail on the border ranges of California. Before then, Cheryl wasn’t a writer, walker, or a traveler, and leapt into her journey with a degree of ignorance I find ridiculous and refreshing. As Strayed walks (or limps with blackened toes in the wrong sized shoes), the harsh, dirty, and beautiful environs of the mountain trail provide the perfect backdrop to her own out-of-control life. Recovering from a period littered with death and drugs and a crumbling marriage, Cheryl never once attempts to paper over her cracks, giving ultimate legitimacy to the book’s sub-title A journey from Lost to Found. Wild may not be a literary masterpiece in the realm of a Durrell, but it has the underbelly of a beast of truth, and the scorching honesty and real-life relatability of the author’s inner journey kept me on the trail with her till the end.

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The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari

By Paul Theroux

Book cover of The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari

Why this book?

How could I leave out the doyen of modern-day autobiographical travel writing? Paul Theroux’s list of books describing his overland adventures and the history and culture of places he rides through, is impressive. He is funny, cantankerous, offensive, likable, and informative. I chose his last book Zona because he travels the same path I myself once took. It also differs from his earlier tomes in one distinct way; Paul undertook the hard overland journey from Cape Town to Angola at age 71, when most of us expect to be tucked up in bed with a warm toddy and a cat purring at our feet. His perspective from an older man commentates on and compares the Africa he once knew to now. At times, it’s a depressing tale, exposing stories of hunger and starvation, genocide, nature clogging with plastic, and vast examples of greed, climate change, wilderness destruction, and species extinction. Somehow, Theroux takes the reader on this journey while still managing to find the lighter side of humanity and giving us hope for the future. Real travelers, as Paul would call them, will love it.

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