Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best Travel/ Adventure/ Nature Books of All Time

[While it might seem like I’ve crammed three genres into this list, I believe that each transcends the others, (or at least they’re too similar to break apart).]

Like any experience—and I use the word “experience” broadly—the books we read shape our characters no less than our parents, community, and culture. Some books settle like dust into the corners of our subconscious: memories, sometimes, as inconsequential and soon-to-be-forgotten as the blur of faces seen on a city street. Other books haunt us forever, staying with us like the eyes of our first lover. The books that stay with us are no longer just books; they, having saturated our identities with ideas and images and insights, are now as much our own as they were the author’s. They've become a part of us.

There are many influences behind my decision to live adventurously. I’m not sure to what extent, but the unhealthy amount of travel books I’ve read probably has something to do with it.

I’ve read a lot of travel books. A couple years ago, I went on a travel book reading binge that was borderline pathological. It was my goal to find the greatest travel book of all time. Once I realized I couldn’t read them all, I thought I could assemble several trustworthy “best of” lists compiled by popular travel magazines (National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Condé Nast, etc.) and create an equation to figure out what book was best based on those. The Snow Leopard topped it off. While I wasn’t blown away by that one, the list that I created led to many fine literary discoveries.

There are thousands of travel books and no one—especially someone of a mere 26 years—can taste them all. But, of those that I’ve read, here are my favorite ten.

One last word of warning: Be careful what books you read. They may change who you are.

10. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (1979)

A guilty pleasure, for sure. This book, by far, is the least “literary” on my list, but it was my first travel book. And it inspired me not just to read more, but to dream big. Also, Jenkins, the author, who walked the breadth of our country, graduated from my freshman year Alma mater, Alfred University.

“For the hundredth time I am going to answer someone’s questions about why I’m walking across America. It wasn’t that I minded talking about it or answering questions, it was just that I really didn’t know why myself.”

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)

I remember a passage where she looks at some tiny microbes that make her ponder the infinitesimal, never-noticed kingdoms beneath us and the larger ones in the celestial heavens above us. Like the microbes that broadened her perspective, Dillard’s book did the same for me.

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock -- more than a maple -- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.”

8. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1979)

I wasn’t sure whether to choose this or Chatwin’s The Songlines. Both are exceptional, but In Patagonia is far weirder and creepier—adjectives not normally used to describe travel books. It starts with a description of the skin of a giant sloth—an animal that was thought to have been extinct for centuries. It doesn’t get any more normal after that.

“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”

7. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (1958)

Newby, a professional dressmaker, set off to climb a 20,000 foot peak in Afghanistan. Less notable is the attempted feat than is his relentlessly entertaining writing style. Perhaps the father of all modern-day comic travel writers?

“It was a nightmare room [in Istanbul], the room of a drug fiend or a miscreant or perhaps both... The bed was a fearful thing, almost perfectly concave. Underneath it was a pair of cloth-topped boots. The sheets were almost clean but on them was the unmistakable impress of a human form and they were still warm. In the corner there was a wash basin with one long red hair in it and a tap which leaked.”

6. Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez (1986)

Lopez is one of those writers that make you feel like you know nothing. I can’t even begin to describe what his book’s about. Let’s just say it’s about the arctic. And a lot more.

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

5. The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost (2004)

Troost is the funniest writer out there. He makes world-renowned comic travel writer Bill Bryson sound as dry as an evangelical preacher on the verge of the retirement home. (And I like Bryson.) This book was the first one I’ve ever laughed out loud to and I did so almost every other page.

“‘A story is like a car trip,’ tutored my editor. ‘You, the writer, are the car that takes readers from point A to B to C without leaving the road.’ As careful readers may have already surmised, I favor the ditches of digression.”

4. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

Like a fundamentalist reading the Bible, I took in almost every word as dogma. Abbey has lots of opinions about our precious wild and he’s not afraid to share them. PS: Why has The Monkey Wrench Gang—his other major work—yet to be adapted into a film?

“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

3. West with the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

Oh, Beryl. How I would’ve loved to have been your lover in your later years, bringing you toast with jam and tea while you plugged away at your writings with a scattering of papers and an inkwell on your desk. However, Marham—an aviator, horsewoman, all-around badass, not-to-mention one of the finest writers of her age—probably would have been too free-spirited for me to tie down.

“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents—each man to see what the other looked like.”

2. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery (1939)

Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read. A French aviator and WWII surveillance pilot, Exupery flew over the Andes, the Sahara, and in storms that would have sent lesser men to careers in cubicles. He, rather, chose to live and die in his beloved planes. If there’s any book that can do it, this will be the one to awake the “sleeping prince” inside you.

“But you, by the grace of an ordeal in the night which stripped you of all that was not intrinsic, you discovered a mysterious creature born of yourself. Great was this creature, and never shall you forget him. And he is yourself. You have had the sudden sense of fulfilling yourself in the instant of discovery, and you have learned suddenly that the future is now less necessary for the accumulation of treasures. That creature within you who opened his wings is not bound by ties to perishable things; he agrees to die for all men, to be swallowed up in something universal. A great wind swept through you and delivered from the matrix the sleeping prince you sheltered--Man within you. You are the equal of the musician composing his music, of the physicist extending the frontier of knowledge, of all those who build the highways over which we march to deliverance. Now you are free to gamble with death. What have you now to lose?”

1. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (1950)

It’s every boy’s dream to find five gentlemanly comrades and shove off on a nonsensical voyage fraught with peril, hardship, and a slim chance of glory. Well, it’s mine at least. Heyerdahl did the undoable: he took a rickety wooden raft across the Pacific and lived to tell his story.

“The world was simple—stars in the darkness. Whether it was 1947 B.C or A.D suddenly became of no significance. We lived, and that we felt with alert intensity. We realized that life had been full for men before the technical age also—in fact, fuller and richer in many ways than the life of modern man. Time and evolution somehow ceased to exist; all that was real and that mattered were the same today as they had always been and would always be. We were swallowed up in the absolute common measure of history—endless broken darkness under a swarm of stars.”

Honorable Mentions

I’d probably have Walden in the Top-10 but I think I’ve given it enough advertisement. Here are some other favorites:

Old Glory by Jonathan Raban (1981)
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Please feel free to share your favorite travel/ adventure/ nature books in the comments section.


Ken said...

Here's the Top-40 list I compiled based on a whole bunch of other "best of" lists and the equation I made to rank them; "equation," making my process sound far more sophisticated than it actually was.

1. Snow Leopard
2. Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
3. Arabian Sands
4. West with the night
5. In patagonia
6. old glory
7. the worst journey in the world
8. Road to Oxiana
9. The great Railway bazaar
10. No mercy
11. Desert Solitaire
12. coming into the country
13. Video Night in Katmandu
14. A time of gifts
15. Two towns in provence
16. In a sunburned country
17. songlines
18. roughing it
19. wind sand and stars
20. Behind the wall
21. When the going was good
22. sailing alone around the world
23. kon-tiki
24. the perfect storm
25. Journals of Lewis and Clark
26. travels with charley
27. Out of Africa
28. Endurance
29. Farthest north
30. riding to the tigris
31. arctic dreams
32. tracks
33. city of djinns
34. Seven Years in Tibet
35. Great plains
36. road fever
37. Travels in the interior districts of Africa
38. Blue Highways
39. Iron and Silk
40 Sea and Sardinia

I used the following lists:

World Hum-


National Geographic Adventure-

Conde Nast-


National Geographic-

World Hum-

Anonymous said...

What an awesome, comprehensive (feeling,) annotated list. I never thought I would be at all inclined to read a travel/adventure/nature book, but I find myself enticed. Well sold, Sir

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list. I wasn't familiar with some of those. One I think you'd love based on your writing is:

On the Water: Discovering America in a Rowboat

I wholehardedly reccomend Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World.

And to a lesser degree than the above two, but still very good: "Maiden Voyage" by Tania Aebi.

Ken said...

Marleen-- yes, you absolutely must pick one of these up. Anything by Troost for humor. I also think you'd enjoy "Wind, Sand and Stars"--even if you don't consider yourself the adventurous type.

Anon-- I've read Slocum, but haven't heard of the two others. I'll check them out. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ernest Shackleton's famous expedition, likely what you reference as #28: Endurance, is probably my favorite.

I gave my copy to a patient who was facing a tough battle with stomach cancer. I told him it was a story about a bunch of people who faced really long odds, but all managed to beat the odds. I moved away shortly after this, so I don't know if he read it, or if he beat the odds.


Josh said...

Hey Ken,

Great list there, I'm a travel book junkie as well. I've pretty much read all the ones my local library has in stock. I can't understand why people read fiction books when there's so many great non-fiction books out there. I'd much rather read about something that happened in the real world, rather than something that was dreamt up in just one lone persons imagination.

I'll recommend a book to you, called 'Why Don't You Fly' by Christopher J A Smith. Against everyones advice this dude rode a bicycle from the UK to Beijing, pretty impressive, and a great read.

Ken said...

Surgeon--I've never gotten around to reading "Endurance" but I'm familiar with the story and I've seen the documentary, which was fantastic.

Josh--I'll look up the Smith book. As for fiction/nonfiction--I go both ways. Oftentimes a fictional book, I feel, has a lot more to say than something limited to what happened in "real" life. Have you read any Jack London? "Robinson Crusoe" is one of my favorites. As is Russell Banks's "Cloudsplitter." All fictional. All great.

Josh said...

Thanks for the book tips in that last comment there Ken, I'll see if my library has any of them, I'm sure they will.

Jon Eaton said...

sex lives of cannibals is a great book, if you are gonna pick one from Ken's list choose that one first!

John A said...

I read Dilliard's "The Writing Life" in an undergrad course and thought she was brilliant. I picked up a copy of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" a while back and have it sitting on my to-read shelf.


Faraz Hussain said...

Nice, I just place an order on Amazon for the audiobook of The Sex Lives of Cannibals. These are my recommended travel books:

* Culture Shock! Japan by P. Sean Bramble
* Culture Shock! Brazil by Volker Poelzl by Zafar Ihsan , Karin Mittmann
* Culture Shock! Pakistan by Zafar Ihsan , Karin Mittmann
* The Best American Travel Writing 2000 and 2003
* Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
* Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald
* The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
* Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town: by Paul Theroux
* Great Railway Bazaar by Theroux, Paul
* The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain
* Old Patagonian Express by Theroux, Paul
* Riding the Iron Rooster [Mass Market Paperback] by Theroux, Paul
* Shadows in the Sun: Travels To Landscapes Of Spirit And Desire

Ken said...

John-- I loved The Writing Life. I really ought to read more Dillard.

Faraz--Awesome list. Can you narrow it down to 2 or 3?

Anonymous said...

I wanted to let you know that I just finished Kon Tiki and it was nothing short of excellent. As soon as I can get my hands on them, I plan on devouring the rest of the list as well. Thanks again for the suggestion of a genre that probably would have taken me a long time to find on my own.

Ken said...

Marley--Great! My pleasure! I hope to one day make a "best travel movie" list--though it seems most any movie has travel and adventure in it, so it may be too tough to narrow down.

viagra online said...

all these books are very good, most I have read and I look very interesting!

Ken said...

World Hum recently put up a fantastic list, using a similar method.

1) A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis
2) A House in Bali, by Colin McPhee
3) A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
4) A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
5) A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
6) A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul
7) A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
8) A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
9) Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron
10) An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul
11) Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
12) Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
13) The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
14) As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee
15) Baghdad Without a Map, by Tony Horwitz
16) Balkan Ghosts, by Robert D. Kaplan
17) Beyond Euphrates, by Freya Stark
18) The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, by Eric Hansen
19) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, by Lawrence Durrell
20) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
21) Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin
22) Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
23) Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming
24) Chasing the Sea, by Tom Bissell
25) City of Djinns, by William Dalrymple
26) Coasting, by Jonathan Raban
27) Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee
28) Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
29) Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
30) Down the Nile, by Rosemary Mahoney
31) Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
32) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
33) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
34) Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler
35) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
36) Four Corners, by Kira Salak
37) Full Circle, by Michael Palin
38) Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy
39) Golden Earth, by Norman Lewis
40) Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
41) The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
42) Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke
43) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
44) Hunting Mister Heartbreak, by Jonathan Raban
45) In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
46) In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
47) In Siberia, by Colin Thubron
48) In Trouble Again, by Redmond O’Hanlon
49) The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain

Ken said...

50) Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
51) Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
52) Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman
53) Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
54) The Lady and the Monk, by Pico Iyer
55) Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain
56) The Log From the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
57) The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz
58) The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson
59) Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta
60) The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
61) The Muses Are Heard, by Truman Capote
62) No Mercy, by Redmond O’Hanlon
63) Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson
64) Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris
65) Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban
66) The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux
67) Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
68) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
69) The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux
70) The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart
71) Riding to the Tigris, by Freya Stark
72) The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
73) The River at the Center of the World, by Simon Winchester
74) River Town, by Peter Hessler
75) Road Fever, by Tim Cahill
76) The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron
77) Roughing It, by Mark Twain
78) Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence
79) Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
80) The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
81) The Size of the World, by Jeff Greenwald
82) Slowly Down the Ganges, by Eric Newby
83) The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
84) The Soccer War, by Ryszard Kapuscinski
85) The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
86) Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler
87) Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue, by Paul Bowles
88) Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
89) Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck
90) Travels With Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn
91) Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris
92) Two Towns in Provence, by M.F.K. Fisher
93) Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
94) Video Night in Kathmandu, by Pico Iyer
95) West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
96) When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh
97) The World of Venice, by Jan Morris
98) The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (2, 5, 11)
99) Wrong About Japan, by Peter Carey
100) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Anonymous said...

Robert Twigger's book 'Voyageur',
in which Twigger and co. attempt to re-create Alexander Mackenzie's 1793 expedition to discover a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean in a birch-bark canoe is a fantastic adventure story, and one which I think everyone contributing to the blog would enjoy reading.
Francois Odendaal's 'Rafting the Amazon' (Classic Adventure)
Rosemary Mahoney - Down the Nile.

Ken said...

Anon--good stuff. I've read "Voyageur." It was especially meaningful to me because I spent a summer living as a voyageur. In fact, the craftsman who made his canoe made ours. Haven't heard of the others; I'll look them up.

I'd taken a long break from travel books but just picked up a few. Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" is good, but I think he could have added personal depth to it. And "Larry's Kidney" was easily one of the funniest books I've ever read. Superb. I'm currently reading Rory Stewart's "The Places in Between." Not the most dynamic writing, but a very impressive journey.

Oh, and I forgot to paste the link for the World Hum Best 100 list. Here it is:

Anonymous said...

Tales of a Female Nomad by rita Golden Gelman

Anonymous said...

Anything by Anne Mustoe, who set off on a round the world cycling tour at age 54, kept cycling and writing until she died in Syria in 2010, on what would be her last trip.