Libraries full of books have been written on travel, most of them forgettable, but a few remain timeless. I’ve only sampled a tiny portion of the world’s travel books, but there are a few that changed the way that I travel and how I think about travel. Here are five books that were important to me:
1. The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau
Today, we mostly travel for pleasure, but there was a time that people did it for very specific purposes. Trade and migration were common reasons, but spiritual travel in the form of religious pilgrimage was another powerful motivator. Cousineau discusses how we can use our travels today to recapture that spirit and bring meaning to our wanderings. I often find myself thinking deep thoughts in the long hours spent alone while travelling. This book brought some clarity to me and made me realize that perhaps there was a meaning for why I was driven to travel and explore the world.
Photography has always been an important part of my travels. I love capturing images of a place to help me remember what I saw and to communicate that vision to others. I have always wanted to go beyond the typical snapshots and take the kind of photos that make a place come alive to the viewer. I think I’ve gotten better at it over time, but am still a long way from where I would like to be. I have read many photography books, but this one was geared specifically to travellers and the author’s philosophy of focusing on small details and getting closer to capture the best shot resonated with me and changed how I take photos and how I see the world. It is less a technical manual than it is a manifesto on how to observe things around you.
A million travelogues have been written. I’ve read some great ones and have even been bored by a few, but this one about a man’s journey in South America’s Andes stands out. His descriptions of the people and the landscape of the Altiplano transported me there like few other books have. His words made me want to visit this land so I could see it for myself. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get there, but the power of this book is such that I still want to go. I was also moved by the author’s inner struggle about writing about this unspoiled place and how it might attract future travellers and how that could transform it to become unrecognizable.
This book is a fictional account of a backpacker’s adventures in Thailand that transport him to an island that is a traveller’s paradise, one that is off the Lonely Planet trail. It seems like heaven, but things go terribly wrong. This book reminded me of the silly debate about what is a “real” traveller. It made me get over myself and realize that any kind of travel is good for you and that there is no use for labels like travellers and tourists. (Even though the critics hated the Leonard DiCaprio movie version of the book, I thought it was great.)
In the late 1990s, I wrote a regular travel column for the Montreal Gazette and called it Off the Map. The name was inspired by the title of Iyer’s book, but I only wish I was half the writer he is. This book chronicles Iyer’s witty and accurate observations of several of the world’s “lonely” places such as North Korea, Iceland and Bhutan. Ironically, many of the countries he wrote about two decades ago have become fairly mainstream destinations, a byproduct of our constant desire to seek out places that others haven’t visited. Iyer’s prose is outstanding and forced me to think about being more observant when I travel and made me want to become a better writer.
Honorary mention: Looptail by Bruce Poon Tip
This book is partially a biography and partially a business manual by the founder of G Adventures. The overall message from the book by Poon Tip is that he believes travel can make the world a better place by putting money in the hands of people in the places we visit and it can bridge cultures to help foster world peace. It made me realize that travel can be a transformational force and not just a pleasant activity.
What are the travel books that you found inspirational? Let me know in the comments.