A Reader’s Guide: Around the World in 80 Books

From classics to comics, romances to crime capers, these page-turners evoke a sense of place.

Please login to bookmark

Illustration by Kathryn Naumiec. Photo: Daniel Loiselle/Getty Images (Globe Stand)


The Great American Road Trip (5 of Them)

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY by John Steinbeck (1962) “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch,” begins Steinbeck. But wanderlust was a lifelong condition, and the author hit the road with his dog to find an America in transition.

ROAD FEVER by Tim Cahill (1992) Why limit an American road trip to the north? Cahill didn’t. In a hilarious and harrowing (and world record-setting) 23.5 days, he drove from Argentina to Alaska.

Driving Albert Einstein

DRIVING MR. ALBERT by Michael Paterniti (2000) In this stranger-than-fiction drive from New Jersey to California, Einstein’s brain is delivered in a Tupperware bowl to his granddaughter.

THE DHARMA BUMS by Jack Kerouac (1958) Beat generation Buddhism enthusiasts hitchhike around the West in this jazz-fueled semi-autobiography.

BLUE HIGHWAYS by William Least Heat-Moon (1982) Jobless, loveless, and practically on the run, the author set out on a three-month, 13,000-mile journey to celebrate pre-globalized, pre-prepackaged America.

True Crime

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt (1994) “Mercer House was the envy of house-proud Savannah,” writes Berendt of the Victorian mansion of Jim Williams, a prominent local on trial for murder in this southern Gothic drama.

THE ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean (1998) This nonfiction caper digs into the subculture of South Florida’s floral black markets and meets a plant dealer obsessed with cloning the rare ghost orchid.

BALLAD OF THE WHISKEY ROBBER by Julian Rubinstein (2004) This “true story of bank heists, ice hockey, Transylvanian pelt smuggling, moonlighting detectives and broken hearts” tells of Attila Ambrus’s double life as a Budapest hockey goalie and infamous Hungarian thief.

Picture Books for Grown-Ups

Clover Yemen Local Women

Steve McCurry captured this image of women gathering clover in Yemen. Photo: Steve McCurry/Magnum

With a click of the camera—as these photo books show—worlds are revealed. UNTOLD (2012) tells the story behind the famous image of Afghan girl Sharbat Gula as well as other photos of distant places made hauntingly human by Steve McCurry’s compassionate eye. HERE FAR AWAY (2012) collects four decades of the black-and-white, animal-inspired pictures (flamingos in Namibia, a lone horse in an English field) of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. The photo collages and journal entries in THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION (1997) pay tribute to Dan Eldon, who died at 22 covering the African land and people he loved.

A Travel Writer Walks Into a Bar…

THE INNOCENTS ABROAD by Mark Twain (1869) Twain skewers the antics of mid-19th-century affluent Americans on “the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land” while detailing the travel discoveries that even a bunch of bumbling Yanks can make.

WALK IN THE WOODS by Bill Bryson (1998) “A little voice in my head said: Sounds neat! Let’s do it!” writes Bryson of his more humorous than heroic slog from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. Bryson’s tale may be the funniest call for conservation ever written.

TRAVELS WITH MY DONKEY by Tim Moore (2004) Subtitled “One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago,” this drunk-on-sangria travelogue journeys 500 witty miles from the French side of the Pyrenees to Spain’s celebrated reliquary of St. James.

THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS by J. Maarten Troost (2004) You say “island”; Troost says “quagmire.” The trouble-in-paradise genre gets an equatorial Pacific update in this memoir of misadventures on Tarawa, a speck in the Republic of Kiribati.

SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh (1938) In this send-up of the news industry (the protagonist is a war correspondent who works for the then fictional newspaper the Daily Beast), Waugh offers a thinly disguised glimpse of Ethiopia and a critique of British pretensions.

SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead (2009) Summer is as sweet as a wharfside waffle cone and as tricky to navigate as an arcade game of Asteroids in this mid-1980s coming-of-age tale set in an African-American vacation enclave on Long Island.

DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL by Herman Wouk (1965) In the midst of a midlife crisis, a Manhattan PR flack ditches the city and escapes to a fictional Caribbean island to start anew as a hotel manager.

Asia, Decoded

The Calligraphers Daughter Book

THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER by Eugenia Kim (2009) “I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” So starts this soulful novel about a dying aristocratic culture within Japanese-occupied Korea in the decades leading to WWII.

RIVER TOWN by Peter Hessler (2001) As a Peace Corps volunteer, Hessler taught English in China’s Yangtze River valley, immersing himself in local life and decoding Orwellian red state doctrine.

SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET by Heinrich Harrer (1953) During WWII, an unlikely friendship develops between the Dalai Lama and an Austrian mountaineer who has escaped a British prisoner-of-war camp in India.

PURE by Timothy Mo (2012) Snooky, a Muslim-born katoey (lady boy) in Thailand, is coerced into spying on a local Islamist school in this fictional study of rising extremism in Southeast Asia—with side trips to the Philippines, Singapore, and beyond.

THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene (1955) The British author portrays Western blundering in the powder keg that was French Indochina (now Vietnam) in this classic wartime novel.

THE BEACH by Alex Garland (1997) A Thai island utopia turns foul in this satirical novel that nevertheless sparked a real-life tourist rush to Thailand’s remote sands.

Passages on India

Delhi Mosque

A boldly colored door leads to a Delhi mosque. Photo: Matt Brandon/Design Pics/Corbis

Four people from different strata of the Indian caste system come together in a Bombay house during the turbulent mid-1970s in Rohinton Mistry’s A FINE BALANCE (1995). In Arundhati Roy’s THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS (1997), love, obligation, and desire rip apart a family in Kerala, where during monsoon season the “countryside turns an immodest shade of green.” Eric Newby journeys SLOWLY DOWN THE GANGES (1966), India’s holiest river, by boat, bus, and cart. In CITY OF DJINNS (1993), William Dalrymple spends a year in Delhi’s modern mayhem, communing with charismatic locals and the spirit-world djinns.

Extreme South America

IN PATAGONIA by Bruce Chatwin (1977) When he was a kid, Chatwin found a dinosaur fossil in his grandmother’s cabinet. This inspired him, years later, to travel to the southern tip of South America, where his peregrinations led to tales of banditry, Butch Cassidy, and Welsh immigrants.

IN TROUBLE AGAIN by Redmond O’Hanlon (1988) This nail-biter of a jungle trek begins with a review of the afflictions O’Hanlon might encounter in the depths of the Venezuelan Amazon: Chagas’ disease (from a bug bite that kills you up to 20 years later), river blindness, and the candiru (a tiny catfish that can attach itself, with grave consequence, within the urethra).

BRAZILIAN ADVENTURE by Peter Fleming (1933) His brother invented James Bond, but 26-year-old journalist Peter Fleming? He signed on to a treacherous 3,000 mile Brazilian jungle hunt to uncover the fate of a lost English explorer.

Wild Coast John Gimlette Book

WILD COAST by John Gimlette (2011) “To some this is hell. To others it’s an ecological paradise, a sort of X-rated Garden of Eden,” writes Gimlette, who embarked on a swashbuckling three-month expedition into the dense forests of “South America’s untamed edge”—Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.

Read It and Eat

TWO TOWNS IN PROVENCE by M. F. K. Fisher (1964) This memoir is much more than a pastiche of pastis and other local flavors from Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; Fisher’s tale merges travel, geography, philosophy, and food.

MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by Anya Von Bremzen (2013) This sweet-and-sour remembrance of cuisine behind the Iron Curtain reveals the unexpected highs (black-market bubblegum) and grim lows (bread lines) of dining back in the U.S.S.R.

LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel (1989) A love affair is thwarted by filial tradition in revolution-era Mexico, where Tita pines for Pedro for 22 years while keeping family recipes and lore alive. You won’t be the first traveler to Mexico asking for turkey mole with almonds.

COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA by James Hamilton Paterson (2004) A tart counterpart to Under the Tuscan Sun, this delicious satire features a pompous English hack who attempts to immerse himself in the culinary heart of Italy until his nutty eastern European neighbor destroys his delusions, wrecks his recipes, and (possibly) stirs his passions.

Literary Lionesses in Africa

DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller (2001) Raised during the Rhodesian Bush War, Fuller scuttled with her family from their scrappy farm in Zimbabwe to Malawi to Zambia, in this big-hearted tale of survival.

OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen (1937) “Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air,” writes Dinesen, who ran a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills, near Nairobi. She recorded the airy rhythms and knotty romances of an East Africa lumbering from tradition to modernity.

DOWN THE NILE by Rosemary Mahoney (2007) Spellbound by the Sphinx, Mahoney rowed solo down the Nile in a fisherman’s skiff—perilously close to crocs—to survey the cultures along its shores, paying homage en route to the great travelers (Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale) who preceded her.

WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham (1942) The first person to complete a solo eastwest transatlantic flight—and that’s the least interesting thing about her—Markham evokes her childhood in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and her exploits as a bush pilot.

THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver (1998) A Christian missionary family from Georgia alights in the Belgian Congo in 1959. In the resulting clash of values, saving souls becomes harder than it seemed.

Gone Hollywood

Torres del Paine National Park Chile Lake Pehoe

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo: Blaine Harrington III/Corbis

These travel scenes hit the screens. Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2008) launched murderously bleak Swedish winters into a sizzling Nordic literary meme. South America transforms a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara in THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (1993). Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail gets to the essence of WILD (2012).

Trains, Trains, and More Trains

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie (1934) Belgian detective Hercule Poirot encounters a freakish cast of ticketed passengers as he untangles the mystery behind a wealthy American’s murder on a train from Istanbul to London.

AROUND INDIA IN 80 TRAINS by Monisha Rajesh (2012) “I had never seen India as a tourist. If I was to go back and give it a real chance after 20 years, what was the best way?” asks Rajesh. Her answer: by riding absolutely everywhere on every sort of track, from luxury trains to Mumbai’s hazardous commuter lines.

THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR by Paul Theroux (1975) Theroux takes the train from London to Tokyo and back across Siberia in a pre-cellphone era where chaos, cultural clashes, and third-class cars color a career-defining account.

Bright Words, Big Cities

RIO DE JANEIRO by Ruy Castro (2003) In 2003, amid a local gang uprising, some 400,000 tourists landed in Rio to celebrate Carnival. “The city nearly drowned in feijoada (the traditional dish of black bean stew),” writes Castro in this portrait of the world’s most sensual city, where bossa nova, beaches, and futebol top Cariocas’ obsessions.

LONDON PERCEIVED by V. S. Pritchett (1962) Punctuated with Evelyn Hofer’s striking photographs, this book evokes the landscapes, lore, and legendary characters that have kept London endlessly fascinating.

TRIESTE AND THE MEANING OF NOWHERE by Jan Morris (2001) “It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination,” writes Morris of the unprepossessing Adriatic haven of Trieste, overlooked by travelers—but not by history.

Treasured Islands

Taxi Cuba

Cruising in old-school style, a cab passes Cuba’s Capitol. Photo: Hugh Sitton/Corbis

“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu, the blue really begins,” writes Lawrence Durrell in PROSPERO’S CELL (1945), a luminous reflection on an Ionian island and its inhabitants. Other isle-centric reads: Henry Miller’s THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI (1941), penned after Durrell invited him to Greece; Oscar Hijuelos’s THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE (1989), with a pulsating Havana beat; Michael Ondaatje’s conjuring of his native Sri Lanka in RUNNING IN THE FAMILY (1982); and P. F. Kluge’s tropical mystery, MASTER BLASTER (2012), set in Saipan.

Travel Illustrated

PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi (2000) “I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists,” writes Satrapi in the introduction to her tragicomic-strip memoir of growing up in Tehran, Iran, during the Islamic Revolution.

CARNET DE VOYAGE by Craig Thompson (2004) This sketchbook diary chronicles months of pensive wandering through Europe and Morocco in cartoons that show the full dimension of cultural alienation and occasional enlightenment.

JERUSALEM by Guy Delisle (2012) Illustrating life as an expat in the Holy City, this travelogue captures the social and religious swirl of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish populations.

Moody Ireland

Paddy Clarke Roody Doyle Book

PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA by Roddy Doyle (1993) Meet a 10-year-old hooligan named Paddy who rattles around in this fast-paced, poverty pinched paean to late 1960s Ireland. “We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick,” begins the book—and it never lets up.

ARE YOU SOMEBODY? by Nuala O’Faolain (1996) Her gloomy upbringing in Dublin (one of nine kids, alcoholic mom, philandering dad, lust-killing nuns) held little promise that this magnificent memoirist would carve a place for herself at the heart of Irish literary life.

A BOOK OF MIGRATIONS by Rebecca Solnit (1997) The author’s long hike in western Ireland leads to a rumination on movement—cultural, psychological, personal—in a land partly defined by “tinkers” (Irish itinerants).

Polar Opposites

TERRA INCOGNITA by Sara Wheeler (1996) For Ernest Shackleton, “Antarctica was a metaphor as well as an explorer’s dream,” notes Wheeler, who spent seven months in one of the world’s most inhospitable spaces.

ARCTIC DREAMS by Barry Lopez (1986) “The land as far as you can see is rung with a harmonious authority,” writes Lopez about the enduring force of the Arctic region.

AN AFRICAN IN GREENLAND by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981) A Togolese fixates on Greenland after finding a book about Inuit at an evangelical bookshop. He eventually makes it to the land of his obsessions and writes this improbable travelogue.

Escape To Eastern Europe

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera (1984) This philosophical and liberally sexy tale of Czech intellectuals during the Prague Spring tracks the tyranny of external events over our personal motivations.

BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON by Rebecca West (1941) “All Central Europe seems to me to be enacting a fantasy which I cannot interpret,” writes West in one of travel literature’s most dizzying door-stoppers. This tale of a journey through Yugoslavia in 1934 is a political portrait of the Balkans replete with attitude, opinion, and conjecture—some outdated, some timeless.

BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1986) At age 18, the author set off on foot across Europe and found an old world on the edge of modern tumult. In this second book of a trilogy, Fermor tours Prague, Budapest, and Transylvania on the road to Constantinople.

Paris, J’Adore

Paris Jardin du Luxembourg

Reflecting on Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg. Photo: Bertrand Rieger/Hemis/Corbis

Julia Child discovers her true culinary calling in Paris and Marseille, thanks to dishes such as boeuf bourguignon, in MY LIFE IN FRANCE (2006). Edmund White’s erudite yet gossipy THE FLÂNEUR (2001) strolls from Montmartre to the Seine. Ernest Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST (1964) hangs out with literary stars and artful expats in Les Deux Magots and other jazz-age cafés, but Rosecrans Baldwin’s memoir PARIS, I LOVE YOU BUT YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN (2012) reveals the comical gulf between the romance and reality of being an American expat in the City of Light.

Isn’t it Romantic?

EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006) “I wish Giovanni would kiss me,” begins this memoir of a woman’s journey from personal pain to transcendence through Italian food, Indian insight, and Balinese bliss.

House of the Spirits Isabel Allende Book

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende (1982) The master of magical realism spins a multigenerational tale of a family riding the roiling tides of love and politics in revolutionary Chile.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E. M. Forster (1908) An Edwardian love triangle catches fire in Florence and Rome in a romance that’s both a study of British mores and an exploration of classical and Renaissance settings.

When Bad Things Happen in Good Places

INTO THIN AIR by Jon Krakauer (1997) “Attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility,” writes Krakauer in the introduction to his spine-tingling account of epic disaster atop Earth’s highest peak.

ALIVE by Piers Paul Read (1974) And you thought airplane food was bad? In 1972, a jet carrying rugby players from Uruguay crashed in the Andes; only 16 men survived ten hellish weeks atop snowy peaks. Guess how.

Just Deserts

THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles (1949) A sense of alienation and existential angst—mirrored by the stark geography of North Africa’s deserts—permeates this novel about American travelers confronting cultural chasms and impenetrable emptiness.

DESERT SOLITAIRE by Edward Abbey (1968) “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place,” writes Abbey. His was Moab, in Utah’s canyon lands.

THE VALLEYS OF THE ASSASSINS by Freya Stark (1934) “In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name,” writes Arabist and adventurer Stark, who trekked deep into Persia to document the Lords of Alamut, hashishfueled terrorists, for the Royal Geographical Society.

ARABIAN SANDS by Wilfred Thesiger (1959) Legendary explorer Thesiger lived for five years with Bedouin peoples, creating a mystique, rooted in absolute immersion, of the modern nomad.

Based in Southeast Asia, George W. Stone equally devours thrillers, philosophy, adventure, and poetry.

Appeared in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler (US Edition) as “A Reader’s Guide: Around The World In 80 Books”.




  • GEORGE W STONE is Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Travel. He tweets as @travelerstone.


Please Login to comment