I am obsessed with reading about the places I travel to. When we decided to spend this wonderful year off traveling Europe instead of sailing the Pacific, one aspect of the switch that excited me was the long list of books I’d really been wanting to read, most of which were either set in, or about Europe.
Currently, I’m tackling Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a 1200 page travel book based on several trips she made to Yugoslavia just before World War II. The book consists of half her experiences while traveling: observations of people, reported conversations and details of the land and geography. The other half of the book is the history of Yugoslavia, or at least the history from her perspective as a 1930’s Englishwoman. I love this combination of travel writing and history. My favorite author of this style is Tony Horowitz, who mixes travel writing with primary source history material and on-the-ground investigations of his subject matter. His Blue Latitudes and A Voyage Long and Strange are two of the finest travel books and best history books I’ve ever read.
When it comes to the actual genre of travel writing, more often than not I prefer itinerant travel writing (someone traveling through a place) over sedentary travel writing (someone settling permanently in a foreign land) because I like the idea of continued estrangement rather than attempted adaption. But either way, most of all I like the travel writer who interacts with the history of a place and has a good, solid, controversial opinion about everything.
I also like reading specific histories of a place I’m traveling to: one of my favorite experiences was reading about Kit Carson in Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides while traveling through the American Southwest. My favorite, of course, is reading a good novel about place, like last summer when I got to read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey while meandering through the dark forests of the Pacific Northwest. A great novel about a fascinating place is impossible to beat.
But travel writing, the genre, can be very underappreciated. Good travel writing is not just entertainment, but an art form unto itself. At its best, travel writing allows the writer (and those they meet along the way) to interact with a specific place in a specific time giving us a second set of eyes with which to see the world and providing a very unique personal history of a place. No place can be understood from a single visit nor through a single book, but combining the two opens up the past in a way history alone often can’t.
To truly understand the continued importance of San Diego Bay, I think it best to sit along the shoreline and read Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s account of first sailing into the very same bay and seeing the “well-wooded headland” of Point Loma rise above the the mudflats of Coronado, ensuring a safe and gentle harbor. Somewhere between history and reality lies a good detailed account of a beautiful bay on the brink of becoming civilized, coming to life through the urgent words of a wide-eyed 19th century traveler.
Below are my all-time favorite travel books as well as my (ever-growing) list of travel books to read – which tend to direct my desires of places to visit.
I would love to hear about your favorite travel writing books or insights into other travel writers you enjoy.
Top Ten Travel Writing Books (read while traveling to that place)
- Nature Writings by John Muir (Sierra Mountains and elsewhere)
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (Paris)
- Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams (Navajo Country)
- Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (sailing from Boston to California via Cape Horn)
- Venice by Jan Morris
- Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck (Small Town America by car)
- Italian Journey by Goethe (Italy)
- Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz (I’ve read in Hawaii & Alaska but also New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific)
- The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson (Small Town America by car)
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (Spain)
My List of Books to Read (while traveling there):
- Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (Yugoslavia) IN PROGRESS
- In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
- Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence
- Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (Middle East and Central Asia)
- Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessan (Himalayas)
- Journey Without Maps by Graham Green (West Africa)
- Old Glory by Jonathan Raban (Sailing Down the Mississippi)