The best travel books for wanderers

Who am I?

Well before I started writing travel books and novels, I was addicted to travel, to wandering, to being a vagabond. As a teenager I would hitchhike and simply go wherever the driver was headed, roaming as far as possible before turning around in time to get home before dark. As soon as I turned 18, I worked for six months day and night and then took the money and spent a year on a very low-rent tour of some 25 countries. As you will see, my picks here have little or nothing to do with hotels and restaurants, and little to do, except in passing, with sightseeing or sports activity or other common tourist activities. Like my own books, they are interested in people and ideas and, as Rebecca Solnit calls it, getting lost.

I wrote...

And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit

By Tom Lutz,

Book cover of And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit

What is my book about?

Tom Lutz is on a mission to visit every country on earth. And the Monkey Learned Nothing contains reports from fifty of them, most describing personal encounters in rarely visited spots, anecdotes from way off the beaten path. 

Traveling without an itinerary and without a goal, in
Monkey Lutz explores the Iranian love of poetry, the occupying Chinese army in Tibet, the amputee beggars in Cambodia, the hill tribes on Vietnam’s Chinese border, the sociopathic monkeys of Bali, the dangerous fishermen and conmen of southern India, the salt flats of Uyumi in Peru, and floating hotels in French Guiana, introduces you to an Uzbeki prodigy in the market of Samarkand, an Azeri rental car clerk in Baku, guestworkers in Dubai, a military contractor in Jordan, cucuruchos celebrating Holy Week in Guatemala, a Pentecostal preacher in rural El Salvador, a playboy in Nicaragua, employment agents in Singapore specializing in Tamil workers, prostitutes in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, international bankers in Belarus, a teacher in Havana, border guards in Botswana, tango dancers in Argentina, a cook in Suriname, a juvenile thief in Uruguay, voters in Guyana, doctors in Tanzania and Lesotho, scary poker players in Moscow, reed dancers in Swaziland, young camel herders in Tunisia, Romanian missionaries in Macedonia, and musical groups in Mozambique. With an eye out for both the sublime and the ridiculous, Lutz falls, regularly, into the instant intimacy of the road with random strangers. 

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The books I picked & why

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.”

The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

By Isabelle Eberhardt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Eberhardt's journal chronicles the daring adventures of a late 19th-century European woman who traveled the Sahara desert disguised as an Arab man and adopted Islam. Includes a glossary. Previously published in English by Virago Press in 1987, and as The Passionate Nomad by Virago/Beacon Press in 19

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.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

By Henry Adams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Using architecture, sculpture, culture and history, Adams humanizes the medieval period and provides valuable insight on religious philosophy. Mont-Saint Michel and Chartes provides a background and description of the construction of two French landmarks built in the 11th century. The Mont-Saint Michel cathedral was built during a militant time; it was not enough to simply be steadfast in one's own beliefs, but also to make others believe them. Religious conversion was a form of defense. Mont-Saint Michel was built in a period where faith was aggressive, almost violent, and to accommodate this, Mont-Saint Michel was built in honor of a…

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.

In Patagonia

By Bruce Chatwin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked In Patagonia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The book that redefined travel writing' Guardian

Bruce Chatwin sets off on a journey through South America in this wistful classic travel book

With its unique, roving structure and beautiful descriptions, In Patagonia offers an original take on the age-old adventure tale. Bruce Chatwin's journey to a remote country in search of a strange beast brings along with it a cast of fascinating characters. Their stories delay him on the road, but will have you tearing through to the book's end.

'It is hard to pin down what makes In Patagonia so unique, but, in the end, it is Chatwin's…

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.” 

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

By Pico Iyer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Video Night in Kathmandu as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Pico Iyer began his travels, he wanted to know how Rambo conquered Asia. Why did Dire Straits blast out over Hiroshima, Bruce Springsteen over Bali and Madonna over all? If he was eager to learn where East meets West, how pop culture and imperialism penetrated through the world's most ancient civilisations, then the truths he began to uncover were more startling, more subtle, more complex than he ever anticipated. Who was hustling whom? When did this pursuit of illusions and vested interests, with it's curious mix of innocence and calculation, turn from confrontation into the mating dance? Iyer travelled…

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.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

By Rebecca Solnit,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A passionate, thought provoking exploration of walking as a political and cultural activity, from the author of the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence

Drawing together many histories--of anatomical evolution and city design, of treadmills and labyrinths, of walking clubs and sexual mores--Rebecca Solnit creates a fascinating portrait of the range of possibilities presented by walking. Arguing that the history of walking includes walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit focuses on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from philosophers to poets to mountaineers. She profiles some of the most…

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