Our literature-loving good friend Patrick Smith has written his debut blog post taking us on a journey around the world with some of his travel favourite books. From Alaska to Australia, taking in hiking, cycling and swimming, here are his pick of books that would inspire even the most hardened couch potato to book their plane ticket and start exploring…
If you have wanderlust and your next great adventure is far off in the future then I think the next best thing to being out in the world is to set sail from your own armchair and lose yourself in a great travel book. Below, I’d like to share with you some of my favourite travel books that have helped filled this void in between my own excursions.
The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux (1995)
The pillars of the title are the Rock of Gibraltar and Ceuta in northern Africa that mark the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and also the start and end of his journey. Theroux gives you a real feeling for the complex relationships of the many different cultures that live side-by-side in a relatively small area of land and the inevitable tensions this can cause, from Corsican and Sardinian rivalry to the ever-present backdrop of the Yugoslav war. There are many scenes of wry humour and acute observation and I found the section in Albania especially poignant.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958)
Great travel writing doesn’t have to just be non-fiction, and while Kerouac is more famous for his writing about driving in America, there is a vivid sequence in this novel that describes climbing the Matterhorn Peak in California which is easily the most satisfying description of hiking I’ve ever read.
Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban (1981)
The mighty Mississippi has been a source of inspiration for writers since Mark Twain, in fact, “Old Glory” is inspired by “Huckleberry Finn”. Raban travels from near the source of the river in Minnesota all the way down to the Delta at the Gulf of Mexico in a tiny boat. Like the Theroux, there is an inescapable political backdrop to his voyage, for example the transition from the Carter to Reagan-era America, but it’s the numerous interesting encounters he has on his voyage that really make this book special, it’s probably my all-time favourite.
Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington (2006)
Probably the most irreverent book on my list and while his tongue in cheek writing style may not be to everyone’s taste there’s no doubting the extraordinary achievement of Darlington’s voyage, taking his wife, whippet and redoubtable barge Phyllis May 2 from their home in Staffordshire, down the Grand Union Canal, escorted across the English Channel and then on to the famous walled city in southern France with a quick dip in the Mediterranean just for good measure.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (1986)
Chatwin is one of my very favourite writers, so there was never any question that he wouldn’t be on my list, the problem was, what book to choose? I’ve opted for “The Songlines” over the more famous but still wonderful “In Patagonia”, because this book is so much more than just an account of a journey, it’s part-autobiography, part investigation into aboriginal Australian culture and a discussion on the role of nomads in human history. A brief scene where Chatwin describes a conversation between him and an English expat in Sydney on the Manly ferry stood out as I read it a few weeks after taking the same trip myself.
A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby (1994)
While I’m a great believer in the maxim that it’s the journey and not the destination that’s most important, especially when it comes to good travel books, there’s always an exception and this is demonstrated by Newby’s charming account of his home from home in Tuscany. I think this is a must-read for anyone who has considered living abroad especially if you were thinking of renovating a farmhouse.
French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France by Tim Moore (2001)
Of all the books on this list, this one is closest to my dream trip. In 2000 Tim Moore set out to ride the entire route of that year’s Tour de France, and his account of his epic and remarkable experience is very funny, inspiring and occasionally moving. I just realised that Moore was the age I am now (36) when he did his odyssey so I’ve no excuses for not getting out there now.
Into the Wild by John Krakauer (1996)
If “Narrow Dog” represents comedy in travel writing on this list then “Into the Wild” represents the tragedy. The heartbreaking tale of how Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless ended up in an abandoned bus in Alaska, is a cautionary tale but also a celebration of a short life well lived. I’m a big fan of the movie also.
Waterlog by Roger Deakin (1999)
If the other books on this list are for the armchair traveller then “Waterlog” is definitely for the bathtub traveller. Deakin’s account of travelling the length and breadth (or should that be width?) of the British Isles in search of the best wild swimming the country can offer encapsulates all that I love about travel books, discovery, exploration and enlightenment.
So what are your favourite classics of travel literature? I’m rather conscious that my list doesn’t include any women writers (I do have copy of Spain by Jan Morris that I’ve been meaning to read) I notice also that none of these books feature any flying, has there been a great travel book where flying was the primary method of transport? I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Written by Patrick Smith find him on twitter @patrickxsmith