The best travel books for wanderers

The Books I Picked & Why

The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

By Isabelle Eberhardt

Book cover of The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

Why this book?

Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Switzerland in 1877, and against all odds made her way, solo, to Algeria in the 1890s, where she converted to Islam, dressed as a young man, and travelled widely. But this is just the headline—her life was full of lovers, both open and clandestine, assassination attempts, and remarkable adventures. She died without having published anything, at the age of 27, in a flash flood. But she left voluminous diaries and other manuscripts, which were published posthumously and translated a number of times. One of the most intrepid of the Victorian women travelers, she wrote on a trip back to Europe: “Now more than ever do I realize I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”

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Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

By Henry Adams

Book cover of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

Why this book?

Originally published privately in 1904 for his nieces, it was printed commercially a decade later and has stayed in print ever since. It is a “tour” of the two great cathedrals one from the 11th century and one from the 13th, and both among the wonders of the world. But it is much more: a cultural history of medieval Europe, a sympathetic understanding of the worldview of everyday people of that era, and a reading of some of the great thinkers—Abelard, Aquinas—of that era. He is a great storyteller, and since it is written for his two young relatives, it is not dry or academic, but full of avuncular charm and wisdom.

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In Patagonia

By Bruce Chatwin

Book cover of In Patagonia

Why this book?

I talk about Chatwin in my Aimlessness, and for that book I read everything he had written. Chatwin was one-of-a-kind—a bit like a beatnik in his refusal to live a bourgeois lifestyle, he was also a bit like a classic polymathic, erudite, British intellectual, even though he never finished a university degree. He spent time as a director at Sotheby’s, selling art and antiquities, and as a journalist reporting from far-flung locales. But eventually, he just wandered the globe extolling the values of restlessness, exploration, and the nomadic life. It can be argued that Chatwin invented contemporary travel writing—he is a great storyteller, puts himself in the story, and eschews the big sights in favor of everyday people and off-the-beaten-path discoveries—in this book such things as Argentine villages full of Welsh miners and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy.

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Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East

By Pico Iyer

Book cover of Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East

Why this book?

It is hard to pick one of Pico Iyer’s many great books for this list, but Video Nights is the one that put him on the map (so to speak). He was writing for Time magazine at the time, covering global business, and this book represents his more personal experiences of those years, when Rambo and Madonna were the cultural front of economic globalization. Like the kids, he describes with Mohawk hairdos in Nepal and Hong Kong, the exotic, for him, lies not just indifference, but in sameness: he is fascinated by the Genghis Kahn-era temples in Ulan Bataar, but even more by the exotic experience of finding a McDonalds there. As he says, “for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.” 

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Wanderlust: A History of Walking

By Rebecca Solnit

Book cover of Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Why this book?

Like Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, this book is about what it means to be open to serendipity, to take “subversive detours,” and to travel without a checklist, shopping list, or itinerary. Neither of these are traditional travel books, but instead offer a sense of travel that includes our own backyards and dreamscapes as well as foreign terrain. Solnit is one of the great and one of the most versatile writers of our time, with a roving intelligence that enlivens whatever she looks at, be it medieval maps or downtrodden city streets, and that, finally, is what travel writing is at its best: we encounter not just new places, but new ways of seeing.

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