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Top Ten Travel Books as selected by Michael Shapiro

From 2002 to 2004, I traveled to interview the great travel writers where they live for my book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. I met Jan Morris in Wales, Bill Bryson in New Hampshire, Peter Matthiessen at the eastern end of Long Island, and Redmond O’Hanlon in Oxford, England, among many others. My research led me to read hundreds of travel books — the ones below are some of my favorites. In selecting these books I asked myself the following questions: How much did I learn from them? While reading them, how eagerly did I look forward to returning to them? How beautifully were they written? And how much heart did these writers bring to their subjects? Perhaps these aren’t the greatest literary works of our time – then again perhaps some are – but they are immensely gratifying and enjoyable to read again and again. A final note: I focus on more modern and some lesser known books, leaving out such classics as Homer's The Odyssey and Twain's Innocents Abroad that surely belong on any list of best travel books.

– M.S.

Congo Journey (called No Mercy in the U.S.) by Redmond O’Hanlon

Informed by Joseph Conrad, O’Hanlon’s intrepid and downright dangerous journey into the heart of Africa is at times frightening, at other times laugh-out-loud funny. O’Hanlon’s quest is the legendary dinosaur of Lake Télé. Naturally he takes the long way to the lake and nearly gets killed by a village headman who holds a longstanding grudge against his guide. Along the way he tries to save an abandoned baby gorilla and battles his demons and the haunting spirits of Central Africa. One wonders if O’Hanlon will ever return and you can make the case that the O’Hanlon who emerges from the central African jungle is not the same O’Hanlon who went in.

A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris

Certainly Jan Morris has written more profound, more scholarly and more important books, such as her Pax Brittanica trilogy about the rise and fall of the British empire and her seminal works on Venice, Hong Kong, Sydney and so many other places. Jan says her best book about place is Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and it’s hard to disagree. But I read A Writer’s House in Wales on the train as I went to visit Jan in Wales last year, and learned so much from this slim volume about Morris and about Wales. Like the warm host that she is, Jan welcomes the reader to her solid 18th-century home and offers a tour of her vast library, shows off her stuffed red kite (the raptor has made quite a comeback in Wales recently), and delights in her bust of Admiral Jackie Fisher, a long-dead but strikingly attractive British admiral with whom Jan plans to have an affair in the afterlife.

The Lady and the Monk Pico Iyer
The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer

Iyer’s first book, the startlingly insightful Video Night in Kathmandu, took his readers on a whirlwind tour of 10 Asian countries showing how Eastern and Western cultures were colliding and colluding. For his next book, he planned a quieter, more internal exploration: a year in a Kyoto monastery. But after a week his curiosity led him out onto Kyoto’s streets, where he meets the lovely Sachiko, who guides Iyer through the intiricacies of Japanese culture and history. Like Video Night, The Lady and the Monk explores cross-cultural themes and misunderstandings, but from a more personal perspective. Sagely, Iyer focuses on Sachiko and her desire for liberation from the regemented roles society has prescribed for her.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Like much great travel literature, Travels with Charley is a snapshot of its time that has remained relevant decades after it’s published. In 1960, at the age of 58, Steinbeck and his standard poodle embarked on a three-month journey in a cozy camper across the U.S. Though he revels in the beauty of Montana’s wide-open spaces and California’s redwoods, Steinbeck is disheartened by the rampant waste of the nascent consumer culture and the racism he encounters, especially in the South. In hindsight, the book is a prescient look at the problems that would entangle the U.S. though the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

In one of the classic mid-century travel adventures, Newby sets out to climb one of Afghanistan’s highest peaks with four days of mountaineering experience. Near the 20,000 foot summit, Newby has an ice axe in one hand and a climbing manual in the other, trying to figure out how to carve steps in the ice. Known for his wry and self-deprecating humor, Newby is a delightful traveling companion and his descriptions of the high-altitude Kush convey a shimmering sense of wonder. At his side for part of the journey (but not the climb which he did with a male friend) is his stolid wife Wanda, who helped save Newby’s life during World War II when Newby escaped from a POW camp. For that story, see Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines.

The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman

This collection of four long essays traces Ackerman’s travels in pursuit of bats, crocodiles, whales and penguins. She doesn’t hesitate to get down and dirty, whether slogging through narrow caves dripping with bat guano or getting up close to crocs to determine their sex. Ackerman is a keen naturalist and her observations lead into the spiritual as she wonders why whales sing in rhyme and shows the kindliness of bats.

The World, the World

The World, The World by Norman Lewis

Lewis is everything a travel writer should be: astute, compassionate, insightful, gracious, and, when appropriate, outraged. One example: He has little tolerance for fundamentalist missionaries who denigrate indigenous customs and cultures, and is disconsolate as he sees fishing villages transformed into resorts for Europe’s movers and shakers. Lewis’s career reached from the 1930s to the turn of the century, as he wrote well into his nineties, and you can’t go wrong with any of his books. The World, The World, whose title is almost a sigh, is an autobiographical look back at Lewis’s travels and life and a fine overview of his work. But don’t stop here, to fully appreciate Lewis read his books on Cuba, Central America and Asia.

Tim Cahill

Pass the Butterworms by Tim Cahill

As a founding editor of Outside magazine, Tim Cahill redefined adventure writing, taking it away from testosterone-fueled adventure and to stories that can make you laugh, make you cry and make you think. Cahill is an everyman, and his overriding theme is that if he, a middle-aged, mid-Western guy, can search for tigers, swim with sharks, or ride with Mongolian horseman, so can you. All it takes is some planning, research, and, ok, just a bit of cojones. Pass the Butterworms is a collection of his finest essays – the first story on Mongolia is worth the price of admission. Anyone aspiring to become a travel writer is advised to study Cahill closely: though his craft appears effortless, he is a master of structure. Best of all, his humorous touch makes reading these stories a joy, even when he tugs on your heartstrings.

The Lost Continent

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

Sure, Bryson is better known for his riotously funny A Walk in the Woods, but I lean towards his first “travel” book, The Lost Continent, a highly personal memoir about Bryson’s return to the U.S. after almost two decades abroad. Starting from his hometown of Des Moines (“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to,” is how the book starts), Bryson embarks on a road trip encompassing 30-some U.S. states, often reflecting on similar trips led by his directionally challenged father a generation before. Beyond his humor — I was laughing out loud by the fourth page – are incisive observations about the U.S., such as how hard it is to simply walk across a street that’s designed solely for cars. When I interviewed Bryson he told me he hadn’t seen The Lost Continent as a travel book, but after its success his publishers decided humorous travel would be his niche.
The size of the world

The Size of the World by Jeff Greenwald

In 1994, to commemorate his fortieth birthday, Jeff Greenwald decided to travel around the world without getting on an airplane. He moved by bus, boats, train, and foot and during his 9-month trip he has riveting encounters with the famous, such as Paul Bowles in Tangier, and ordinary people, including Tibetans struggling for basic rights. Greenwald’s New York upbringing is evident in his savvy maneuvering at border crossings and in his sharp-edged humor. Included in the book are the dispatches he filed for Global Network Navigator, an early online magazine that published Greenwald’s essays immediately after he wrote them, a revelation at the time.

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