My Five Absolute Favorite Books About Travel

As we’re starting to plan for life getting back to normal at some point in the not-too-distant future, the travel fantasizing is beginning – for me and probably for you too. Thinking about how someday we’ll be able to jump on a plane or a boat or a bus to some place other than where we’ve been stranded for the last year feels like the beginning of hope again for travel addicts. 

But while we wait for vaccines to be distributed and borders to reopen, it’s time to hit the books and get inspired by traveling through reading.

Need some ideas for what to read to fuel that traveling fire again? Here are my five favorite books about travel – both fiction and non-fiction – the art and beauty and joy of traveling to get you all inspired again for when the world reopens. They’re perfect whether you’re yearning to travel just a few miles away or across the world. 

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The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

Every travel book Paul Theroux has written lights a fire under you to undertake some epic journey – across all of Russia by train, or other similarly arduous trips. But I really love this exploration of the Mediterranean as he journeys around the whole soft, secluded sea (it barely even has tides).

It’s a different look at the cultures that have sprung up and changed constantly around this very old sea. Plus, he wrote it in the middle of the war in Yugoslavia, so reading a description of wartime Split and recently opened Albania was fascinating while I was living here. Buy it on Amazon.

Most people like to think they are in search of wisdom. That was not my motive. Perhaps it was all very simple, even simpler than curiosity and that, in all senses of the phrase, I was making connections.

Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Fun fact – I have seven nieces and nephews, and someday I dream of pulling them out of a gardening obsession into a swirl of exotic locales. That’s what happens in Graham Greene’s very funny and oddly touching novel, plus some light crimes and a lot of scandalous love affairs.

He is one of my favorite writers of all time and was an obsessive traveler too (Journey Without Maps is also a really excellent travel memoir), but this one is light and still instructive. You’ll want to forgo a dull suburban retirement once you read it too. Buy it on Amazon.

“Switzerland is only bearable covered with snow,” Aunt Augusta said, “like some people are only bearable under a sheet.”

Graham Greene, Travels with my Aunt

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Not a typical travel memoir, as the author doesn’t stray outside of her hometown of New York City, but a beautiful travel read nonetheless. Laing ties the work of four innovative artists and their connection to urban life and modern loneliness in a sublimely beautiful way.

As a solo traveler, this book resonated deeply with me and gave me a new appreciation for my own company, especially as a woman. It’s one of those books that moved me so much I remember exactly where I read it (in bed, under the mid-summer light, in a converted barn on the Isle of Man full of kittens and spiders). Buy it on Amazon.

In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure. There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I love everything the philosopher Alain de Botton has written (high marks also for How Proust Can Change Your Life), but his guide to getting lost and found in travel is lovely. Don’t let his fancy titles fool you into thinking this is some dense, inaccessible philosophical work – he explores why we travel, what we get out of it, and how it changes us.

And he does it all in a way that seems so simple it’s easy to forget the depths of knowledge he accesses to get us there. It will make you look at your past travels, and your desire to travel, and your future travels, in a new and clearer light. Buy it on Amazon.

It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another one of my favorite authors, Rebecca Solnit makes the case for getting lost in the uncertain and the unknown as an antidote to freezing ourselves too much within what we think is our comfort zone.

A little loss of control is good for us humans, who like to cling to the illusion that we have any at all. And traveling, whether it’s to the other side of the world or just to the other side of town, is the perfect way to do that.

It will inspire you to lose yourself more, and find yourself too, as all the best books about travel and self-discovery do. Buy it on Amazon.

The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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