About Naomi Lancet
Latest Posts by Naomi Lancet
Chosen by a literary all-star jury that included: Monica Ali; Vikram Chandra; Jared Diamond; Peter Mayle; John McPhee; Francine Prose; Paul Theroux; Gore Vidal; and more.
Along the Ganges
Ilija Trojanow (2006)
An emigrant from Cold War Bulgaria now living in Cape Town, Trojanow brings a pan-religious enthusiasm to his writings on Asia, and in his journey from the Ganges’s source to the chaotic cities along its course, he treats the river and its Hindu devotees with fascination, respect, and an eye for detail. Nominated by Nuruddin Farah (Haus Publishers, $20).
Wilfred Thesiger (1959)
Born in Ethiopia to a British diplomat, the writer-explorer was disenchanted with the West and spent five years traveling among the bedouins of southern Arabia, detailing their disappearing way of life. For his dedication and his eloquence, Paul Theroux puts him “on my classics list” (Penguin, $15).
An Area of Darkness
V. S. Naipaul (1965)
This is old-school Naipaul—the Subcontinental chronicle that made his name and expertly defined the India of the early sixties (even the writer’s former protégé turned nemesis Paul Theroux confesses admiration). Linh Dinh calls it “penetrating, taut, and funny,” with the caveat that “the only flaw with Naipaul is the fact that he does not drink alcohol, which curtails his access to many social situations” (Vintage, $14).
As They Were
M.F.K. Fisher (1982)
Peter Mayle, who has credited the brilliant food writer’s Provence books with inspiring him to first visit the region, nonetheless recommends the book that comes closest to being Fisher’s complete memoir. “She has the rare gift of letting the reader know exactly what it was like to see what she saw, hear what she heard, taste what she tasted, and feel what she felt,” says Mayle. “A book not to be missed” (Vintage, $14).
A Barbarian in Asia
Henri Michaux (1933)
For those who would have liked to imagine Rimbaud as a reporter, the louche French poet Michaux might make the perfect guide to the East in the thirties. John Wray calls the book “hilarious, bizarre, and wildly self-indulgent”—not always a bad thing. “He was apparently hell-bent on alienating half the planet, or at least those parts he traveled through. Not to be read by anyone looking to get a feel for what life is like in India, China, or Japan” (New Directions, $15).
The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer
Eric Hansen (2004)
From Manhattan to the Maldives, the Riviera to Vanuatu, Hansen has been everywhere and swallowed it all whole—as this dizzying collection proves. His stint as a volunteer in Mother Teresa’s Calcutta poorhouse is a highlight. “The stories he spins are full of humor and savvy,” says Julia Alvarez. “These are perfect-pitch stories, mischievous, daring—perfect for the armchair traveler who wouldn’t dare” (Vintage, $14).
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
Lawrence Durrell (1957)
What begins as a romantic Peter Mayle–style romp quickly becomes something much deeper, says Robert D. Kaplan: “a study of, among other things, how frustrated young men turn to violence on ‘an agricultural island being urbanized too quickly.’ The perfect blend of travel and informed reportage. While The Alexandria Quartetmade Durrell famous, this is the better work” (out-of-print).
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
Rebecca West (1942)
The writer’s chronicle of Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II enjoyed a boost in popularity when that country finally dissolved a half-century later. Robert D. Kaplan calls it “a sprawling world unto itself—an encyclopedic inventory of Yugoslavia and a near-scholarly thesis on Byzantine archaeology, pagan folklore, Christian and Islamic philosophy, and the nineteenth-century origins of fascism and terrorism. It all unfolds with the meticulous intricacy of an expert seamstress.” Also nominated by Francine Prose and John Wray (Penguin, $25).
William Least Heat-Moon (1982)
Impelled by the loss of his job and his wife, Least Heat-Moon set off in a van he christened Ghost Dancing to cross the country along its back roads. “There’s a real honesty to the authorial voice, as well as tact,” says Peter Hessler. “He lets us know where he’s coming from, and then he steps back and allows the places and people to carry the book.” Also nominated by Erik Larson (Back Bay, $16).
Captain John Smith: Writings (2007)
The Jamestown founder’s journals and other primary accounts of the colony were collected on the four hundredth anniversary of its creation. Matthew Sharpe, author of the surrealist novel Jamestown, says that “if one were to use modern categories, his accounts might be said to include travelogue, memoir, ethnography, cartography, zoology and botany, military history, and a bit of James Frey–style fiction. He’s part of America’s DNA” (Library of America, $45).
Chasing the Monsoon
Alexander Frater (1993)
The ultimate foul-weather traveler, Frater crosses India during its summer monsoon. Akhil Sharma feels “there is a joy to his quest—whether interviewing Saudi tourists who come to India to be pounded by the rain or while discussing how exactly to bury a body when the ground is basically mud—that turns what could be a series of set pieces into a great and loving adventure” (out-of-print).
Chasing the Sea
Tom Bissell (2003)
Memoir, travelogue, and cultural history mix in the young writer’s tale of his journey to post-Soviet central Asia’s rapidly disappearing Aral Sea. Then there’s his idea of doing penance for dropping out of the Peace Corps, and for failing to live up to such literary forefathers as Paul Theroux. “It’s so many things,” says Stephen Elliott, “but the travelogue is what gives it narrative momentum.” Also nominated by Stewart O’Nan (Pantheon, $15).
Robert Sullivan (2006)
Claiming to have traveled cross-country 27 times, Sullivan finds a fresh approach to a travel-writing staple by making part of his subject the history of the road-trip genre itself. “Sullivan’s books are like Borges’s story ‘The Aleph,’” says Matthew Sharpe. “He presents you with a little chunk of something that doesn’t look like anything and shows you how the world is contained in it” (Bloomsbury, $15).
Paul Theroux (2003)
Stephen Elliott prefers this cantankerous account of an overland journey—from Cairo to Capetown via canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, and more—to other Theroux books that tread more familiar ground. “It was a fun way for me to learn about a lot,” says Elliott. “It’s a cynical book, but it really makes you want to take that journey” (Mariner, $15).
Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)
What Tom McCarthy treasures most about this landmark outsider document of American mores, and what makes it a travel book, are “his impressions of the land itself as something dark, brooding, and inscrutable.” Jennifer Egan adds, “His observations still resonate—in part as a measure of how much we’ve changed. He wrote, ‘What an admirable position of the New World, that man has yet no enemies but himself.’ Imagine” (Penguin, $10).
Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell (1933)
Written while Orwell struggled to survive in Paris, this is no Lost Generation reverie—which is what Adrienne Miller loves about it. “It’s the gritty, squalid Paris of the poor, one of the least romanticized visions of it ever put on paper,” she says. “After you read it, you’ll never be able to eat in a St-Germain bistro without thinking of young Orwell toiling away miserably in the kitchen” (Harcourt, $14).
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
Rosemary Mahoney (2007)
The novelist’s allusive account—contrasting her lonely rowboat ride with the sumptuous Nile journeys made by Flaubert and Florence Nightingale—just came out in July. But Jan Morris raves about reading it in galleys. “It’s the sort of title that usually makes me reach for the wastepaper basket,” she says. But she’s glad she didn’t, “because it is utterly frank; sometimes rather scary; often extremely witty, brave, and revealing in its generalizations; and above all essentially kind” (Little, Brown; $24).
Ryszard Kapuściński (1978; translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand)
As Haile Selassie’s regime in Ethiopia collapsed in 1974, the intrepid Polish journalist interviewed various functionaries and compiled a complete (if composite) picture of that mysterious kingdom, right down to the emperor’s dog, which had a habit of peeing on the shoes of dignitaries. “As scathing and witty and sharp-eyed a portrait of autocracy as there is in print,” says Jim Shepard (Vintage, $13).
Alfred Lansing (1959)
The Jon Krakauer of his day, Lansing gave shape and understated precision to the story of Ernest Shackleton’s white-knuckle escape from Antarctica in 1915 after his boat had become locked in ice. Mary Karr says it “reminds me how ill-advised all travel is, and why it’s best to stay at home in warm pajamas with a book” (Carroll & Graf, $15).
Alexander William Kinglake (1844)
The writer whom Winston Churchill recommended for lessons in prose style gives a subtly self-mocking account of his travels in the Middle East. “It’s in many ways the portrait of a considerably dislikable young man, a colonial type who takes a superior air toward the locals he meets,” says Jonathan Raban. “Edward Said utterly detested it, but I think he deliberately misread it and didn’t catch the irony” (Adamant, $24).
“Exterminate All the Brutes”
A Saharan travel diary tracing the routes of British colonial forces becomes an oddly suspenseful meditation on atrocities and genocide, drawing a line from African imperialism to the Holocaust. “The travel writing and historical analysis are equally haunting,” says Monica Ali (New Press, $15).
Farthest North: The Voyage and Exploration of the Fram, 1893–1896
Fridtjof Nansen (1898)
The author, a scientist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was also bold (or crazy) enough to try to reach the North Pole by getting his boat stuck in ice and drifting north. It didn’t work, and he was found a year later, alive and farther north than anyone had ever been. “One of the great works of Arctic exploration,” says Akhil Sharma. “Despite the hair-raising story, there are many charming details” (Interlink, $30).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S. Thompson (1972)
Thompson’s exuberant, drug-fueled twist on New Journalism reaches its apotheosis in an account aptly subtitled “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” “I think it’s the first book that ever made me laugh out loud,” says Francine Prose. “It’s travel as hallucinatory nightmare, a mode of travel that I think is underreported” (Vintage, $13).
The Fearful Void
Geoffrey Moorhouse (1974)
Hoping to recover from a failing marriage, Moorhouse sets out to cross the Sahara on foot and by camel, from west to east. He fails there, too, but “it’s the failures that make the book so riveting and so humane,” says Jim Crace. Paul Theroux admires its “fortitude and fine writing” (out-of-print).
From a Chinese City
Gontran De Poncins (1957; translated by Bernard Frechtman)
A Frenchman’s portrait of Cholon, a Chinese section of Saigon, in the 1950s is “very vivid and true,” according to Linh Dinh, who spent two years there himself as a child. “His Cholon is a 24/7 Rabelaisian carnival where every door is flung open, where privacy and its attendant brooding are not tolerated, where laughing strangers lean on you in the theater” (out-of-print).
Ian Frazier (1989)
The deadpan novelist’s circuitous 25,000-mile drive through the heartland—with stops at the site of the Clutter mass murder and Sitting Bull’s cabin—is a popular favorite. “Great Plains has an excruciatingly satisfying molecular approach,” says Robert Sullivan. “You see the infinity of the wide stretching center of the country through its small and dusty museum-remembered particulars.” Luis Alberto Urrea calls it “a haiku master’s journey through perception, both inward and outward.” Also nominated by John McPhee and Stewart O’Nan (Picador, $14).
The Great Railway Bazaar
Paul Theroux (1975)
Some travel writers prefer to hoof it or take a boat. But in this, his first travel book, Theroux proves himself a train man. As he goes from London to Tokyo—mostly by rail—his main subjects are the passengers he meets. “It’s the perfect travel book,” says Peter Hessler. “There’s a simple idea behind the journey, but an incredible range of landscapes and people. The book has a wonderful sense of freedom—not at all the feel of a project undertaken to fulfill a book contract” (Mariner, $15).
J. R. Ackerley (1932)
Holiday is the British colonialist’s clearly embellished account of his service as secretary to the Maharaja Sahib of Chhokrapur, an eccentric with a retinue of male lovers. Evelyn Waugh praised Ackerley’s “high literary skill.” Uzodinma Iweala agrees, adding that it’s “totally hilarious and also sad, because you hear firsthand how relations are colored by colonialism” (New York Review of Books Classics, $14).
Herodotus (circa 440 b.c.)
This history, may well be the first. As ever after, it’s written by the winners, and the Greeks come off well in war with the Persians (recently retold in the film 300). But there is so much more, notes Robert D. Kaplan: “Natural history, geography, and comparative anthropology. Because of Herodotus, history is, in spirit, a verb: ‘to find out for yourself.’ Along with Joseph Conrad, he is our greatest foreign correspondent” (Prometheus, $16).
The Impossible Country
Brian Hall (1994)
One of the last American journalists allowed into Yugoslavia before its collapse, Hall captures its deterioration with intimate portraits of religious and ethnic tribes. Geraldine Brooks calls this “one of the finest travel books ever written. The journey he makes is unique in that it describes places and ways of being that ceased to be almost the moment he left them behind. The writing is exquisite” (Godine, $24).
In a Sunburned Country
Bill Bryson (2000)
The David Sedaris of travel writing makes Australia, home to some of the oddest and most dangerous of earth’s creatures, endlessly entertaining. “I love it,” says Erik Larson, “first because it made me laugh out loud and second because I read it the week after 9/11, when I sorely needed some cheering up. It did the job” (Broadway, $15).
India: A Million Mutinies Now
V. S. Naipaul (1991)
At least according to Akhil Sharma, “the last of Naipaul’s trilogy of nonfiction works on India is also his greatest.” It might have to do with the country’s progress, by this point in the writer’s life, toward throwing off the bonds of religion and caste. “The book combines great psychological depth with a painterly eye,” says Sharma. “Probably more than any book about India, this one gives the reader a sense of place” (out-of-print).
The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain (1869)
Journeying through Europe to the Holy Land with some hilariously insular fellow Americans, Twain mocks both tourist and native, sometimes subtly but always mercilessly. “It’s a book you laugh out loud at,” says Robert Sullivan, “and that eventually—in the description of coffee with a guy the vigilantes have deemed a no-good killer and will soon hang—makes you see that America is a dark place, a place we have to be careful about” (Modern Library, $14).
Bruce Chatwin (1977)
Chatwin’s meandering masterpiece about visiting the arid South American plains in search of a mythical brontosaurus relic—and finding instead a lonely haven of European refugees—scored nominations from six writers. Peter Hessler says, “It’s hard to figure out how the thing is structured and how it holds together so well.” Anthony Doerr loves its “pewter-colored distances and lonesome winds and apocrypha. It is about the unseen, the unknowable, about remoteness itself.” Also nominated by Jennifer Egan, John McPhee, Adrienne Miller, and Francine Prose (Penguin, $15).
In the Country of Country
Nicholas Dawidoff (1997)
This series of biographies of country musicians (Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, and others) becomes a travel memoir almost accidentally, as the writer hits America’s back roads and small towns in search of the genre’s origins as well as the roots he feels are being discarded in country’s rush into the slick mainstream. “The story of country music,” says Jim Shepard, “and the country that created it” (Vintage, $16).
In Trouble Again
Redmond O’Hanlon (1988)
Before setting off deep into the Amazon to meet and “party” with the Yanomami, reputedly the most violent tribe on earth, the author has to find a companion. His warning about a dreadfully invasive parasite doesn’t help make his case. “It’s a great book because it raises the stakes so high,” says Francine Prose. “Nothing bad ever happens to him, but you’re on the edge from the very beginning.” There’s depth, too, as Luis Alberto Urrea attests: “All of his books are beautiful in a subtly apocalyptic way” (Vintage, $14).
Iron & Silk
Mark Salzman (1986)
A common expat experience—teaching English abroad—becomes fodder for a book of unusual scope and point of view, capturing the confusion of a China transitioning from Maoist directives to capitalist imperatives. “It’s a personal book,” says Geraldine Brooks, “but Salzman’s self is in the narrative to help us see the Chinese rather than for the purpose of poking at his own psyche, which I find tedious in many travel narratives” (Vintage, $13).
I See by My Outfit
Peter S. Beagle (1965)
Before becoming a science-fiction writer (The Last Unicorn), Beagle brought his strange perspective to a bizarre cross-country journey via scooter. It was the first travel book Luis Alberto Urrea ever picked up—back when he was a kid stuck in San Diego. “He’s a honey-voiced storyteller; an old-line, deep-thinking liberal,” he says. “It’s a very special book. You can really see it as a precursor to Ian Frazier’s Great Plains” (Centro, $15).
The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
America’s bicentennial brought renewed interest in completing a definitive edition of these seminal American diaries, which Gary Moulton edited into 13 volumes supplemented with notes and maps. For Luis Alberto Urrea, it was the birth of “the big road book—a classic American writing form.” Since then, “we’ve always had this burning urge.” Also nominated by John McPhee (University of Nebraska, $25).
Journey to Portugal
José Saramago (1981)
The Nobel Prize–winning novelist’s early work doesn’t take him far afield; instead, he digs deep, unearthing the bones of a country too often considered an afterthought. His use of the third person remains a strange choice, but the book was an important guide for Monica Ali, who set a recent novel here. “Not always a smooth read,” she says, “but it’s drenched in so much history and culture that it’s an essential read” (Harcourt, $17).
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians
George Catlin (1841)
Interspersed with Catlin’s own illustrations of the Native Americans he met, documented, and mythologized, this is a culture’s advance epitaph. “I know that the literal truth of his accounts has been questioned,” says Graham Robb, “but he says memorable things about the West, and especially about the frontier zone of filth and degradation that precedes civilization” (Kessinger, $56).
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850
Florence Nightingale (1854; published 1987)
Traveling upriver, the future nurse wrote copious letters to family and friends—finally published more than a century later. “I was astonished when I read it,” says Rosemary Mahoney. “I know the name doesn’t conjure big laughs or big adventure, but this book has both. She was incredibly well-traveled and erudite, had a wicked sense of humor, and was a truly gifted writer. A very valuable look at Egypt at the dawn of tourism there” (Parkway, $19).
Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain (1883)
The Old Man has infused most of Twain’s writing, but here is his distillation of what it means to him. It does extra duty as a cultural history, a memoir of his steamboat days, and an early taste of the stories and influences that would inform his greatest fiction. “I’ve always loved Twain’s descriptions of the river,” says Peter Hessler, “as well as the way he portrays a way of life that is gone” (Penguin, $10).
V. S. Pritchett (1962)
The novelist, critic, and traveler wrote books on Spain, New York, and Dublin, but Darin Strauss’s favorite “may be his strangest”: this insider’s guide for visitors. It contains what Strauss considers the single best paragraph describing London (comparing it to “the sight of a heavy sea from a rowing boat”). “His stock on the literary-fame index has taken a fall in the past few years,” Strauss laments, “but Pritchett wrote some of the best travel books of the twentieth century” (Godine, $20).
The Long Walk
Slavomir Rawicz (1956)
Unlike most writers—adventurers with a bit of a death wish—Rawicz crossed from Yakutsk, Siberia, to British India on foot with six others because he had no choice: They were escaping from a brutal Stalin-era gulag during World War II, and they endured inhuman suffering along the way. Sebastian Junger, who wrote the introduction for a recent edition, calls it “devastating” and “one of the great books of the century” (Lyons Press, $17).
The Lycian Shore
Freya Stark (1956)
Other Stark adventure books are more popular (like the suddenly timely Baghdad Sketches), but Colin Thubron prefers this slim, deliberative story about sailing off the coast of Turkey in the manner of the ancient traders. “She was attempting an imaginative study of the cultural origins of the West,” but in an intuitive way, forsaking scholarship for experience. It’s all rendered with “a poignant lyricism that would now be almost impossible to reproduce,” says Thubron (out-of-print).
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Suketu Mehta (2004)
An Indian-American returns to the city of his youth and finds it an unrecognizable megalopolis in this Pulitzer Prize–nominated compendium of stories. “An absolutely terrific work,” says Akhil Sharma. “Organized around the industries that give Mumbai its reputation—movies, gangsters, prostitutes, and the highest of high finance—the book seems to answer any question one might have.” For instance, you’ll find out that hit men are terribly paid; one of the coterie asks to use Mehta’s shower because he has no running water at home (Vintage, $16).
The Muses Are Heard
Truman Capote (1956)
A decade before In Cold Blood, the legendary writer followed an American theater troupe to the Soviet Union, where they were putting on Porgy and Bess. Peter Hessler likes the mildly satirical portrait “for the way it depicts a group journey. It’s interesting there aren’t more travel books like this. Capote had the perfect vehicle with that book” (out-of-print).
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches
Matsuo Basho (1694)
In 1689, the master of the haiku walked through northern Japan for several months, inspired by his devotion to Zen Buddhism. His diary “has much to teach us now,” says Julia Alvarez. “He traveled light, kept his eyes open, wrote concise and vivid portraits, and, lacking a camera, when a scene was totally overwhelming he left off the prose and punctuated the moment with a haiku” (Penguin, $13).
News from Tartary
Peter Fleming (1936)
Ian Fleming’s brother was in many ways his alter ego. He writes with understatement of crossing on foot from Peking to Kashmir with a Bond-girlish Swedish woman he doesn’t much like. “He was a journalist, so it’s very pacey,” says Colin Thubron. What makes it a classic is Fleming’s irony and restraint. “He was making little of it,” says Thubron, “while Ian Fleming was making a lot of what little he did” (Birlinn Ltd., $16).
The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (1987)
Eberhardt’s story is reason enough to read these collected memoirs: Born in Geneva in 1877, she moved with her mother to Algeria, converted to Islam, and lived her life as a man. She had many friends, lovers, and enemies, and died in a mysterious desert flood at age 27. Lynne Tillman says that the diaries “contain extraordinary descriptions of the land she sees and the people she meets” (Interlink, $13).
No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo
Redmond O’Hanlon (1997)
What is it about travel writers and mythic dinosaurs? One such beast, said to live in an extremely shallow lake, entices the comedian of errors into a realm of forbidding swamps, leopards, and crazed soldiers. “Along with laughing at the misadventures,” says Akhil Sharma, “there is the deep relief that at least one isn’t stupid enough to try this.” It encouraged Tom Bissell, though, who calls it “the book that made me want to be a travel writer.” Also nominated by Monica Ali and Jim Shepard (Vintage, $16).
Notes from the Century Before
Edward Hoagland (1969)
A prolific essayist favored by novelists from Updike on down, Hoagland spent three months in the wilds of British Columbia and produced a rich, contemplative portrait. To Robert Sullivan, the book “feels as clear-watered and pristine as British Columbia was in 1966, the last Western frontier of the North American continent” (Modern Library, $14).
Jonathan Raban (1981)
The British writer pilots a 16-foot aluminum motorboat along the Mississippi. What he finds is much less bucolic than what he read about in Huckleberry Finn at age seven, but that only helps make Old Glory, as Akhil Sharma puts it, “one of the essential travel books about America. Along with the dangers of tugboats and running aground, the book captures the psychological workings of the small towns on the river” (Vintage, $15).
The Pillars of Hercules
Paul Theroux (1995)
Touring a well-worn patch of the world—the Mediterranean coast—Theroux came up with fresh insights by roaming with no itinerary, hitting villages and stretches of beach untouched by tourist and travel writer alike. “A great book,” says Linh Dinh, who warns that “going for memorable characterizations, he sometimes oversimplifies” but is often dead-on, as in: “Since arriving in Albania, I had not seen a straight line” (Ballantine, $16).
The Pine Barrens
John McPhee (1968)
For a writer who makes botany and geology transcendent, New Jersey’s forgotten and sparsely populated wilderness—”what is even now a secret place,” says Robert Sullivan—is a perfect fit. “I guess that most people would not think of McPhee as a travel writer,” says Peter Hessler. “But he should be included in a broader definition of a genre that is interested in place and movement” (FSG, $11).
The Places in Between
Rory Stewart (2006)
Rarely does a timely travel book attain classic status as quickly as Stewart’s has. The journalist had the luck (good and bad) of wandering through Afghanistan weeks after the Taliban was deposed. “Stewart’s clipped, terse style belongs to a bygone era,” says Tom Bissell, “but his sensibility is entirely modern.” His books, Peter Hessler adds, “come out of a deeper commitment to his subjects than we have traditionally seen in travel literature. I think this is where the genre is going.” Also nominated by Stephen Elliott (Harcourt, $14).
Riding the Iron Rooster
Paul Theroux (1988)
Of all Theroux’s works, this vast survey of late-eighties China impressed Rosemary Mahoney most. Reading it just after living there, she “was amazed by how accurate and intimate a picture it is. He was also “very prescient about the whole Tiananmen event. Theroux gets a lot of criticism for his opinions, for not always writing about the beautiful. But he’s writing about the truth” (Mariner, $16).
The Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (1998)
“All right, this book gets shelved with fiction,” Matthew Sharpe concedes, but he wasn’t the only one to argue that the writer’s walk through the eastern coast of England is a breakthrough in travel writing. “Nothing beats Sebald’s descriptions of these small towns and the people there,” says Uzodinma Iweala. Sharpe says, “It is melancholy and weirdly funny on occasion and contains striking insights, like the one about how the history of humans is the history of combustion” (New Directions, $16).
The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan
Winston Churchill (1899)
The young would-be prime minister’s work is a travel book masquerading as triumphalist military history. “Here is geography the way it was supposed to have been taught,” says Robert D. Kaplan. “Churchill proves the point that travel writing at its best offers a technique for discussing other, more serious subjects in an interesting narrative format” (BiblioBazaar, $15).
The Road to Oxiana
Robert Byron (1937)
Byron’s eclectic, architecture-obsessed quest to find this ancient land in Afghanistan is credited with perfecting what would become the faux-casual tone of modern travel writing. Jonathan Raban calls it “a work of fantastic craft and artifice and calculation, though it pretends to be just scribbled off on the spur of the moment.” It has, says Colin Thubron, “the most exact and poetic descriptions of Afghan and Iranian architecture. Some of these buildings are gone and just live through Byron’s descriptions.” Also nominated by Tom Bissell (Oxford University Press, $15).
Rome and a Villa
Eleanor Clark (1952)
Clark came to Rome on a Guggenheim fellowship to write a novel. Instead, says Anthony Doerr, “she walked, she looked, and she unleashed her tremendous intelligence. The result is…intimate, explosive, swimming with memory.” Jim Shepard cites the book’s middle section, about Hadrian’s ancient villa, as “the best meditation I’ve ever read on a work of art situated in its place and culture” (Zoland, $18).
Mark Twain (1872)
The ironist made this journey west between 1861 and 1865 along with his brother, the secretary of the Nevada Territory. Twain had enlisted on the Confederate side in the Civil War but quickly defected. “Somewhere back east, a war is happening,” says Jonathan Raban. “At the back of the book, there is the hum and buzz of the war from which Twain is on the run, and it sort of darkens a splendid ironic comedy” (Penguin, $7).
Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia
Peter Theroux (1990)
Paul Theroux’s brother also wrote a great travel book, but his is a slow burner, not a whirlwind tour. It begins as a search for a vanished Lebanese imam but focuses more on understanding Saudi culture from within. “Theroux actually lived and worked in Saudi Arabia,” says Geraldine Brooks, “and is therefore able to riff mercilessly on the inadequacies of most writing by Western blow-ins who purport to understand that most inscrutable country. It’s hilarious and chilling by turns” (Norton, $14).
Sea and Sardinia
D. H. Lawrence (1921)
A nine-day visit to the island spawned the author’s most memorable nonfiction work. “Lawrence brings his hallucinatory skills to every mile of the journey,” says Anthony Doerr. “The sunbaked towns; the sparkling, forlorn sea; the wildness and humanity of the island. Lawrence never stops paying attention, and in his prose everything—sunlight, a steamship, a vegetable market—becomes ecstatic” (Penguin, $15).
Shah of Shahs
Ryszard Kapuściński (1982; translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand)
What always separated the journalist from other foreign correspondents (aside from his eloquence and his liberties with the facts) was his deep engagement with history. In Iran around the time of the shah’s overthrow, he does the job of documenting the revolution’s chaos and its many ironies (e.g., it was originally led by democrats) but also gives bountiful context to an earth-shattering event that still resonates today. Nominated by Tom Bissell (Vintage, $13).
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Eric Newby (1958)
Actually, a very long one. The self-effacing adventurer’s first book describes his unsuccessful attempt to climb a remote 19,800-foot peak in northeastern Afghanistan. At the time, he was a fashion buyer with no mountaineering experience—apart from a trip to some rocky Welsh countryside. “Consistently hilarious,” says Akhil Sharma, “the book is also about a turning point in history, right before all the bitterness that we see today set in” (Lonely Planet, $13).
Norman Douglas (1911)
Long before escaping to Italy became the thing everyone did, wrote about, and parodied, Austrian-born Englishman Douglas documented the experience beautifully—particularly in this survey of the Naples region. “It’s just one of the great works of travel writing,” says Gore Vidal, who made the same move. “He was a superb writer. If you really want to see how these things should be written, read this” (out-of-print).
Skating to Antarctica
Jenny Diski (1997)
Perhaps echoing Moby-Dick, Diski begins with a lyrical description of whiteness, which summons her time in a mental hospital and fuels her odd passion for the icy continent. Of course she decides to go there. “It’s very beautiful and very funny,” says Francine Prose, “and she also does a marvelous job of capturing the people on the trip with her. Of all the travel writers around today, she’s my absolute favorite” (HarperPerennial, $14).
Slowly Down the Ganges
Eric Newby (1966)
Newby, whose understatement extended to his book titles, had to travel a good distance overland along the river when his rowboat ran aground 200 yards from the starting point. Rosemary Mahoney calls it a “very funny story with just the right mix of history and personal interactions with the locals. His portrait of his sometimes skeptical and often deadpan wife is superb. As a rower, I loved this one” (Lonely Planet, $15).
Bruce Chatwin (1987)
The narrative, which begins with a trip to the Outback, soon breaks for new territory, using Aboriginal song as a metaphor for the evolution of human culture—about which Chatwin has strange, beautiful theories. “After reading this book, you will be convinced that the land you step on, whether at home or abroad, is alive with stories which we need to respect and listen for,” says Julia Alvarez, who frequently gives it to traveling friends. Also nominated by Peter Hessler (Penguin, $15).
Southern Baroque Art
Sacheverell Sitwell (1924)
The art critic, baron, and literary scion wrote this survey of the art that arose in the seventeenth century in such creative cauldrons as Lecce, Italy—criticism as imaginative travel. “Some of us are really turned on by good writing—and we’re not turned on very often, I can tell you,” says Gore Vidal—this being one of his rare examples (Kessinger, $32).
Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue
Paul Bowles (1963)
Not long after settling in Tangier, the visionary novelist was charged with recording obscure Moroccan music for the Library of Congress and came away with a series of essays that Francine Prose considers “as dispassionate and odd and beautifully written as his fiction.” Lynne Tillman sees Bowles as “an unreconstructed Orientalist to his death,” but adds that “his appreciation of Moroccan music and literature was deep and genuine” (HarperPerennial, $14).
A Time of Gifts
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977)
This is book one of a planned trilogy about the writer’s journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul in 1933—the concluding part has not yet been published and Fermor is over 90. No matter, says Colin Thubron: This volume is perfect. “His notes were stolen, but he did the whole thing from memory,” Thubron says. That makes it “more natural, looser in a way” than the second volume, but never careless. “It’s very Mandarin, a rich sort of prose” (New York Review of Books Classics, $17).
To a Distant Island
James McConkey (1984)
One of Stewart O’Nan’s favorites is a very unusual kind of travel book. Having moved to Florence in flight from his depression, the author writes a speculative but deeply researched account of Chekhov’s mysterious journey to the remote prison colony on Sakhalin Island in 1890 (Paul Dry Books, $15).
Travels in Arabia Deserta
Charles M. Doughty (1888)
Readers might be better served by a modern distillation of this nearly 1,200-page study of life with the desert nomads in the 1870s—put to paper decades later. The ornate style makes Doughty a must-read despite his Victorian attitude toward non-Christians. He was beloved in his day, too. “England was considered rather dull in the twenties and thirties,” says Colin Thubron. “This feeling of excitement was all abroad” (Dover, $18).
Travels in the Interior of Africa
Mungo Park (1799)
The Scottish explorer who “discovered” the Niger River (and drowned in it a decade later) wrote this perennially popular log of his journey. “An iconic work,” says Peter Godwin, “and probably the best description of pre-colonial life in Africa. It has inspired a host of writers from Hemingway to T. C. Boyle” (Kessinger, $16).
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (circa 1355)
There’s a good chance this medieval Englishman’s journey to Egypt and the Holy Land was entirely fabricated, but it was widely influential in its day and remains, according to Uzodinma Iweala, a “great point of departure for anybody interested in the history of travel writing.” Tom Bissell, who recently discovered it, is “deeply ashamed I did not know of it earlier. It is a wonderfully funny, exciting, and profoundly weird account of a pre-modern consciousness at play in what was then an unimaginably huge world” (Dover, $10).
Travels Through France and Italy
Tobias Smollett (1766)
The Scottish author left for southern climes in his middle age and, as Peter Mayle says, “found so much to offend him that he wrote a wonderfully pithy and cantankerous book. He epitomizes a particular kind of English traveler—critical, superior, and deeply suspicious of foreign food and foreign ways. His views on garlic are particularly scathing” (Kessinger, $22).
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
R. L. Stevenson (1879)
The author of classic swashbucklers was also a crack travel writer, as in this ass-assisted journey—which, according to Graham Robb, “gives one of the very few accurate views of remote France, not seen through a coach or a train window.” Jim Crace thinks credit is due to Stevenson’s trusty donkey, Modestine: “It’s not where you go. It’s the company you keep” (Kessinger, $29).
Travels with Myself and Another
Martha Gellhorn (1978)
Gellhorn’s husband Ernest Hemingway is the unnamed “another” in this collection of essays from the intrepid and savvy traveler, but Rosemary Mahoney recommends it for a section in which she treks alone through Africa. “This is an inspired piece of writing with some beautiful characterizations,” says Mahoney, “witty, political, vivid, and thoroughly enjoyable” (Tarcher, $16).
Two Towns in Provence
M.F.K. Fisher (1983)
This collection of two separate pieces—a sixties portrait of Aix-en-Province and a late-seventies look at Marseille—works for the contrasts they evoke. “Fisher wrote about food and cooking, yes,” says Rosemary Mahoney, “but she also beautifully wrote about the places she visited. She had an almost mysterious ability to convey the mood of a place in just a few simple sentences” (Vintage, $17).
A View of the World
Norman Lewis (1986)
Peter Godwin recommends “anything” by this midcentury traveler—”deservedly recognized by Graham Greene as one of the best writers of the twentieth century”—but says this compilation of 20 pieces spanning 30 years is an excellent place to start. As great a journalist as he was a writer, Lewis manages an interview with an executioner for Castro and a report on the genocide of Brazilian Indians (out-of-print).
West with the Night
Beryl Markham (1942)
A bush pilot and the first person to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic, Markham writes vividly about her discoveries, explorations, and narrow escapes. “Hemingway called this ‘a bloody wonderful book,’” says Peter Mayle, “and so it is.” Recent evidence that her husband may have written it casts doubt on her legacy but not on the power of her story (North Point, $15).
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
The adventurer’s retelling, from inside the expedition, of Captain Scott’s disastrous last attempt to reach the South Pole (made more so by Roald Amundsen’s arrival there a month earlier) is “justifiably famous—and well named,” says Jim Shepard. Paul Theroux considers it a classic because he is “partial to travel books where a certain amount of difficulty is involved.” Also nominated by Mary Karr (Narrative Press, $30).
Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey (2004)
The novelist’s account is as much about the generation gap as it is about the disorientation of travel. Carey’s inability to grasp Japanese pop culture is magnified by his 12-year-old son’s easy embrace of it. “There’s this subgenre of books that are much more faithful to what’s often the real experience of travel,” explains Francine Prose, “which is that you don’t understand a thing of what you see” (Vintage, $12).
So many great travel books. How to choose? We asked 45 of our favorite writers for their favorite nonfiction travel titles—the ones that changed the way they considered a certain culture or place or people, that inspired them both to write and to get out into the world themselves. Their nominations—everything from Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 acid trip Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Herodotus’s 440 b.c. Histories—follow, all of them passionately endorsed and beloved.
The original date of publication follows the title; the current publisher and the price follow each entry.
Here, our all-star literary jury:
André Aciman, Monica Ali, Julia Alvarez, Tom Bissell, Geraldine Brooks, Vikram Chandra, Jim Crace, Jared Diamond, Linh Dinh, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Stephen Elliott, Nuruddin Farah, Nell Freudenberger, Peter Godwin, Peter Hessler, Uzodinma Iweala, Sebastian Junger, Robert D. Kaplan, Mary Karr, Erik Larson, Rosemary Mahoney, Peter Mayle, Tom McCarthy, John McPhee, Adrienne Miller, Jan Morris, Stewart O’Nan, Francine Prose, Jonathan Raban, Graham Robb, Akhil Sharma, Matthew Sharpe, Jim Shepard, Darin Strauss, Robert Sullivan, Manil Suri, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Lynne Tillman, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gore Vidal, Sean Wilsey, John Wray, and Lawrence Wright.