11 Travel Books We Love

The Nat Geo staff picks their top reads that leave a lingering sense of place.

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Some books can inspire more than armchair travels. Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

While I would recommend almost everything from Bill Bryson, from A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) to Down Under (2000) (not his best, but oh so funny), A Walk in the Woods (1998) remains a favourite because it made me fall in love with the outdoors. And because he’s one of the funniest writers you’ll ever have the good fortune of reading. Bryson’s five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in the United States is a hilarious read, peppered with wisdom that comes from catapulting yourself out of your comfort zone (“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.”). Bill Bryson makes for great company through the trek because he talks to you like you’re there (“Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.”), and his learning from travel is simple, in that he doesn’t make a big deal about it: “I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”

–Sejal Mehta, Former Web Editor

Into the Wild by Jon Krakaeur

For the gripping story of the way a young man rejected materialism and tried to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, but eventually dies. Into The Wild (1996) is fascinating not only because it tries to recreate what happened in Alaska, but also because it straddles the grey area of whether the backcountry-foraging Chris McCandless, whose story this is, was an idiot, a person to admire, or feel sorry for.

–Niloufer Venkatraman, Editor-In-Chief

AA Gill Is Away by A.A. Gill

A.A. Gill doesn’t wax eloquent about the places to which he’s been. He turns them into characters — cutting, cranky, often vindictive characters that are equal parts acerbic and endearing, like those surly Parsi men behind the counter of Mumbai restaurants. Take for instance, his description of the African savannah: “The great thing about the Kalahari,” Gill writes in AA Gill Is Away (2003), “is that it hates you. It wants you dead. Things with thorns have thorns on their thorns and they all have poison tips. Everything has an ingenious and unambiguous way of telling you to sod off. There is no romance here. The Kalahari is an amoral, unregulated market force, a pure vicious capitalism practiced by professionals.” For this reason, he writes, “I love it as the last truly honest place on the planet.” Every sentence rings true. What I love about A.A. Gill is that he doesn’t just peel away the layers, he rips apart the flesh and takes a hammer to the rib cage, until he’s holding the beating, bloody heart of a place in his hand.

–Neha Sumitran, Web Editor

In The Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History Of Forbidden Food by Stewart Lee Allen

Seven chapters, the seven deadly sins and food that fits every category. The chapters, each loosely based on one of the sins, traces the history of dishes that were forbidden or taboo in different parts of the world. Some are taboo even today. From Romans who purged to make space for more food and Italians shouting abuses while picking basil leaves, In The Devil’s Garden (2003) took me on an interesting journey of countries, customs, legends, sins, and tastes.

–Rumela Basu, Features Writer

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Until earlier this year, I’d have included conventional titles like On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson, 1971), and even In Cold Blood (Truman Capote, 1966) as my top travel book choices. Then I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt, 1994), a cross-genre masterclass in (almost) true-crime writing. Berendt cobbles together a narrative about a murder starring a motley crew of eccentrics, but it’s really a book about Savannah, Georgia and its languid Southern-ness. Midnight… is now my touchstone for how to write about a place, but more importantly, it accomplishes what the best travel books aspire to—igniting the need to stop mid-sentence and take a bus somewhere. Anywhere.

–Karanjeet Kaur, Former Chief Senior Editor

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

As far as I can remember, My Family and Other Animals (1956) is one of the first books that actually made me want to go to a place. Specifically, Corfu in Greece. The author chronicles the hilarious adventures of his large family, including the dogs Widdle and Puke, on the tiny island. They picnicked in olive groves, went on midnight swims in the warm, azure Ionian sea and feasted on lip-smacking Greek foods. This is one of those books that transports you and plants you smack-dab in the middle of a place, introducing you to its sights, sounds and soul. It stayed with me enough to actually inspire a trip to Corfu, which didn’t disappoint at all. If you’re dreaming of the Greek isles and can’t get there just yet, this is a great book for some armchair travelling.

–Kamakshi Ayyar, Web Features Writer

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk’s story is set in Turkey, but 400 years ago. Despite the time frame, My Name Is Red (1998) navigates ideas, cultures, settings and even societal tensions that make it deeply modern in its reading. I was hooked by the plot, woven around miniature paintings and their artists. The artwork unfurls beautifully across the text, hiding and yet revealing cultures and secrets of the Ottoman regime. The narrative shifts perspectives, sometimes told from the point of view of a dog, a coin, a tree, and so your view of the place changes again and again, like that of a kaleidoscope. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

–Sejal Mehta, Former Web Editor

Night Watch by Sir Terry Pratchett

I fell in love with Terry Pratchett with all the serendipity, possessiveness, and accelerated turning of pages that only a library can spark. Night Watch (2002) was my first Pratchett, and the first of the British fantasy author’s books that I recommend to the uninitiated. (It’s actually the 29th novel in the darkly comic Discworld series.) Night Watch was my introduction to Sam Vimes, the cop who knew which part of the grimy underbelly of Ankh-Morpork he was in, just by rubbing his thin-soled shoes against the pavement (I scuffed some shoes gleaning Mumbai’s topography, in vain). Pratchett had the gift of making a fantasy world so believable that it held a mirror to your own life. Millions of readers recognise Discworld at first sight despite its outlandish proportions; lines often float up into memory at odd moments, when Pratchett’s uncanny understanding of a screwed-up humanity and an ironic universe suddenly illuminates the real world. Discworld harbours magical storms and zany witches and honour-bound assassins and time warps—and most tellingly, a sympathetic portrayal of Death that fans couldn’t help remembering when the beloved author passed away in 2015. (“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.”) The series is every bit the escape that fantasy promises, and just the break you need to come back to real life with a lighter heart. (“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”) I know the lay of Discworld by breathing it off the page; it’s a return ticket that never quits.

–Saumya Ancheri, Assistant Web Editor

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

A beautifully detailed novel about a female botanist named Alma Whittaker, born in 1800. The Signature of All Things (2013) traces her life through the century (and all its discoveries) and her travels from her home in Philadelphia to Tahiti, London, Peru and beyond. I remember devouring page after page, and wanting it to never end. If you do plan on reading this one, and I highly recommend it, do so quickly. PBS’s Masterpiece is reportedly adapting the novel for television, and you really wouldn’t want the spoilers.

–Fabiola Monteiro, Web Features Writer

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

This 1978 first-hand account of a journey through the Himalayas, for its philosophical bent and the way it captures and blends both spirituality and a sense of place.

–Niloufer Venkatraman, Editor-In-Chief

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

I love stories of survival, and this 1988 narrative of a nearly fatal climb has got to rate among the the most incredible of those tales.

–Niloufer Venkatraman, Editor-In-Chief

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