The best books about traveling to dangerous places

The Books I Picked & Why

Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797

By Mungo Park

Book cover of Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797

Why this book?

Beyond the occasional adrenaline rush, one of the chief attractions of risky travel is that it enables us to see how we and others behave under challenging circumstances. For readers whose exposure typically comes from UNILAD Adventure posts or edgy Bruce Chatwin travelogues, this book is refreshingly unself-conscious and uniquely terrifying.

In his quest to locate the legendary Niger River as a potential trade route during the late 18th century, when most of Africa was still unmapped, Park, at 24, set off with two days’ worth of provisions and a few strategic supplies (including an umbrella – he was Scottish), relying upon his wits and native guides to complete an epic journey in which he suffered bouts of malaria, nearly starved, was held captive by Moors, got repeatedly robbed and at one point had to bang on a village gate to escape being eaten by lions.

Given modern sensibilities, we have to remind ourselves that none of this was staged or over-emphasized for effect. When Park resurfaced eighteen months later, dressed in rags and beat to hell, he had long since been presumed dead. His book became an immediate bestseller, but he basked in the glory for only a few years: His entire party later died during a more organized and hyped follow-up expedition.

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The History of the Conquest of New Spain

By Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Davíd Carrasco

Book cover of The History of the Conquest of New Spain

Why this book?

Any account of dangerous travel holds the potential for unexpected revelation, but this one taps a motherlode of rare insights and observations. Part of the reason is that Diaz, a twenty-something soldier of fortune in Hernán Cortés’ 16th-century expedition to the New World, became enchanted by the Aztec civilization that he and his compadres had come to pillage and destroy. Diaz writes vividly and lyrically, with a keen eye for graphic detail, and is unsparing in his accounts of the remarkable brutality on both sides. Five centuries later, his account remains illuminating and disturbing, and shows it’s not always necessary to like your traveling companion to gain insight into a perilous, previously unknown world.

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The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien

Book cover of The Things They Carried

Why this book?

The protagonist in this book travels to the danger zone under duress, having been drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, the experience propels him beyond his physical, mental, and emotional comfort zones. Blending fiction and nonfiction, author O’Brien creates O’Brien the character to narrate a series of short stories focusing on the memories and mementos his fellow soldiers carry with them into the abyss, as well as on the process of how we discern the truth – or some facsimile of it – under fire. O’Brien’s writing is visceral and at times mesmerizing and intentionally disorienting, as when the soldiers curiously watch a Vietnamese girl dancing alone through the ruins of her burned-out village. In O’Brien’s world, everyone struggles to make sense of the unfamiliar, menacing new reality unfolding before their eyes.

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Among the Thugs

By Bill Buford

Book cover of Among the Thugs

Why this book?

This account of Buford’s time spent among violent soccer fans illustrates that dangerous travel can encompass familiar, otherwise mundane locales. On short jaunts between European stadiums, Buford, an American ex-pat, seeks to understand how sporting events sometimes turn deadly, treading a surprisingly thin line between friendly competition and mass violence. He eventually gets caught up in the mayhem, is beaten numerous times, turns violent himself, and comes away with a new understanding of the potential for sudden societal collapse.

In this world, the sound of shattering glass in a local store window is a source of terrible inspiration. Though the action takes place in the eighties, primarily in the UK, it is impossible not to think of the similarly savage coalescence during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when participants fed on collective energy and their own internal dissatisfaction. Thugs, it turns out, are where you find them.

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Apeirogon: A Novel

By Colum McCann

Book cover of Apeirogon: A Novel

Why this book?

The perilous distances traveled in this intense, genre-bending novel are likewise abbreviated – sometimes measured in meters, between Israel and Palestine, but they are as fraught with peril as any thousand-mile survival trek. Based on the author-embellished experiences of two men, one of whom is Israeli, the other Palestinian, who also appear as themselves in factual passages, the book mixes fiction and nonfiction to magnify the drama of traveling back and forth between two adjacent, lethally fractious zones. An unexpected friendship develops between the two men after each loses a daughter to terror violence perpetrated by the other side, which alters their views as they repeatedly crisscross the boundary line.

Despite the book’s comparatively confined settings, the effect is of near-constant, life-changing motion as the two struggle to bridge a seemingly impassible gap in search of the truth. It works. Words of praise like “staggering” and “transformative” barely hint at the book’s power.

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