The best books to take you to another world

Jonathan Meiburg Author Of A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey
By Jonathan Meiburg

Who am I?

If you’re curious about the world, you can find secret doors that open onto unexpected vistas. For me, exploring the lives and origins of the caracaras in A Most Remarkable Creature revealed a vast and surprising story about the history of life on Earth, and about South America’s unique past—stories as wonderful and absorbing as any fantasy. These books are some of my favorite revelations of hidden marvels in the world we think we know. 


I wrote...

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

By Jonathan Meiburg,

Book cover of A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

What is my book about?

In 1833, a young Charles Darwin met a species in the Falkland Islands that astonished him: tame, curious birds of prey that looked and acted like a cross between a hawk and a crow. They stole hats and other objects from the crew of the Beagle, and Darwin wondered why they were confined to a few islands at the bottom of the world. But he set this mystery aside, and never returned to it—and a chance meeting with these unique birds, now called striated caracaras, led Jonathan Meiburg to pick up where Darwin left off, sending him on a grand and captivating odyssey across thousands of miles and millions of years. “To call this a bird book,” wrote The Dallas Morning News, “would be like calling Moby-Dick a whaling manual.”     

The books I picked & why

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Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

By Patrick Leigh-Fermor,

Book cover of Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Why this book?

This book is the second in a trilogy about a long journey Fermor made—mostly on foot—from Holland to Istanbul in 1934, when he was nineteen years old. Fermor wrote the books from memory many years afterward, so their veracity is open to question, but his imagination and skill aren't: he might resent the comparison, but his books gave me the same thrills as an adult that I remember from my parents reading The Lord of the Rings to me as a child. Though all three are astounding, Between the Woods and the Water is my favorite— it begins as he crosses the Danube into Hungary from the west, follows him across Romania, and ends up in the Balkans, a region that would soon be transformed (and, in part, erased) by World War II. Fermor knows that too, but he doesn't mention it: he lets the places he walks through and the people he meets seem timeless and ageless, lit by the joy and wonder of his youth. 


The Peregrine

By J.A. Baker,

Book cover of The Peregrine

Why this book?

Werner Herzog demands that his film students read this book, and it's easy to see why: it's an act of pure seeing that makes a humdrum English landscape blaze with vivid life. Baker, who seems diffident about humanity at best ("we reek of death," he grumbles) embarks on a quest to know the peregrine falcons who live in—and pass through—the place where he lives, and in describing their lives he finds a luminous and heroic world hidden in the muddy fields and clouded skies of Essex. Ours "is a dying world, like Mars," he writes, "but glowing still."  


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

By Rebecca West,

Book cover of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Why this book?

Don't be put off by the sobering dedication to this thick tome ("To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved"): Rebecca West's record of travels through the Balkans between the world wars is an exuberant magnum opus that will immerse you in the (literally) Byzantine history and minute details of a fascinating place and time. If you like your humor bone-dry, she’d often really funny, and you’ll relish the company of her fearsomely powerful mind: her deftness and insight in describing people and places seem almost superhuman.

Though she admits that the book is so long that few people will ever read it, I was so caught up in the force of her writing that I didn't want it to end. I've read one passage about a Bosnian dentist's struggle to outwit her domineering father many times— a strangely heartwarming tale—and I'm always stunned by its clear-eyed tenderness. 


Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea

Why this book?

Matthiessen is best known for The Snow Leopard, but to me this book, written fifteen years earlier, rivals and in some ways exceeds it. It's a unique imaginative project: as part of an anthropological expedition to the remote highlands of New Guinea, Matthiessen was among the first people from the western world to describe the lives of the Papuan farmers who lived there. It’s an extraordinary book, full of beauty and drama, and though it isn’t a journey to the distant past—all life, as someone said, is modern life—it often feels like it: this was a place where the men of neighboring villages fought ritualized wars against one another every week or so. And Matthiessen wasn't an anthropologist; he was a writer, and he presents this insular world from the inside, in the third person, with his trademark understated lyricism. The last line alone is worth the price of admission. 


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

By David Mitchell,

Book cover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Why this book?

David Mitchell's fantasia of life in the closed world of Edo Japan is a visceral, eerie, and profound novel that's also great fun, and it has everything: love, honor, treachery, bureaucracy, magic, a terrifying cult, a debauched ape, and the delightfully arch proto-scientist Dr. Marinus. As with many of his novels, it has the feel and richness of great cinema, and his depiction of life on an island in Nagasaki harbor where representatives of the Dutch East India Company are permitted to trade with a secretive nation they barely understand is so well-researched that you'll almost believe it happened.  


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