Hey, watcha reading? Any books about the world that are taking you on a virtual travel trip?
Like most educated people with extra time on their hands, I’ve been reading a bit more lately than I usually do, trying to balance out the TV time with something that will fire the synapses a bit more in my brain. I try to mix things up with page-turner fiction, non-fiction I can learn from, and some heavier literary works that are more challenging.
One good thing about getting older is you’ve got a very long list of titles you’ve read over the course of decades, so the ones that really make and impression rise up to the top of your memory over time. Since we’re stuck at home a lot and can’t travel as much as we would like right now, the theme of this list is books about the world worth reading that will transport you to another place. They will probably teach you a thing or two also. A couple are educational, giving you in-depth background about a place or its history. Others span multiple countries and take you on a journey.
These are not the “best” books out there! Even someone who reviews books for a living and reads for hours a day only gets to a tiny fraction of what’s published each year, never mind all the older titles they don’t have time to read. Just consider this a list of titles I think are worth reading for the curious person with wanderlust. They’re the ones I didn’t forget as soon as I finished them. I’m starting with a couple of the latest that I read during isolation and then including a few I read all the way back on my first backpacking trip around the world in the ’90s.
There are not very many travel story collections in here, even though there are lots of great ones available, partly because they don’t age very well. Video Nights in Kathmandu rightfully put Pico Iyer on the map when it came out and I loved it at the time, but now it seems as dated as a Yaz or Yes album a few decades later. His Falling Off the Map one holds up better with its focus on isolation, but even there, some formerly isolated places have quickly gotten onto the overtourism lists in a hurry.
If you prefer travel story collections though, you’re in good shape with anything from Tim Cahill or J. Maarten Troost. Or get out of the white male dominance of the travel narrative bookshelf with the regular Best Women’s Travel Writing collections from Travelers’ Tales Publishing. Volume 12 comes out in October.
Most of the really popular travel memoirs eventually get made into movies–especially the ones following the template of “divorced woman sets off to find herself through new challenges in strange lands.” So I went straight to the big screen for most of those and they don’t show up here.
The titles that seem to wear well for me are historical fiction novels that are already set in the past or non-fiction books on a big theme. Most of these books about the world worth reading fit into one of those two categories, with a few exceptions.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I’ve had The World Without Us on my to-read list for a while and after the pandemic struck, it seemed an especially appropriate time to crack it open. It attempts to answer the question, “What would the planet look like if all humans suddenly disappeared or died off?”
The short answer is, in most places, nature will recover quickly and reclaim its former territories, just as it overtook the great Mayan cities to the point some are still undiscovered. (The Panama Canal will be gone in a matter of weeks if it’s rainy season.) We’ve really screwed Mother Nature badly the past century, however, and some of our more recent “progress” inventions are going to live on for hundreds of thousands of years, in some cases a million years. The plastic littering our planet in increasing numbers will not break down unless nature produces an evolution with some microbes that can eat it.
You won’t want to be an animal anywhere near a nuclear power plant or the 600 square miles of chemical storage fields known as Houston. Without humans to maintain the systems keeping these facilities safe and cooled down, the meltdowns and explosions are going to be ugly and long-lasting.
I put this book on here though because it’s a good “history of the world” overview, putting the big picture in perspective over time. I never knew that so many giant mammals roamed the Americas before humans arrived and decimated them, or that they still survive in Africa partly because there was a balance that evolved over tens of thousands of years. This book won’t give you much faith in the collective wisdom of mankind, or our ability to look beyond this week, but it’s a fascinating, educational read. It’s filled with factual tidbits almost guaranteed to give you something to talk about at cocktail parties. Did you know that the human population increases by a million people every four or five days, for instance? When you put the pandemic stats next to that, they seem like just a blip. (As I write this, it’s just $2.99 on Kindle too, a terrific deal.)
On The Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux
Another worthwhile title I finished in 2020. This is the best book you’ll find on modern Mexico, partly because Theroux seems to have read every single one of the others and dissected what was wrong with them. The modern world’s best-known travel writer hasn’t lost his touch (or his cranky edge) as he has reached his 80s. As someone who lives in Mexico, this is the first book I’ve found that really shows all the complicated facets and contradictions of this big and varied country, horrified and enamored at the same time. Plus it’s one of the few that looks into the life of the poor underclass and the migrants without reducing them to a cause or to simple stereotypes.
He travels the Mexican border from one end to the other, in dozens of places supposedly tough guy Americans tell him not to go, then meanders across more forgotten parts of Mexico after completing a teaching stint in Mexico City. He spends most of his time in the two poorest but most culturally rich states in the country: Oaxaca and Chiapas. He travels back roads, visits villages where nobody ever stops, and picks up hitchhikers along the way. His aim is to converse and learn, truly seeing how people live and what they struggle with. He seeks out those who have illegally crossed the border to America, worked there, and returned. Most have no desire to return there: it was a way to send more money home for a while, a response to a lack of local opportunities.
There are a few bits that are a little longer than they need to be, especially the pages where he switches into literary critic mode instead of an observer of what’s around him. Overall though, it’s a balanced look at the good and the terrible in today’s Mexico, realism balanced with compassion. As always, his writing is terrific without being showy.
The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
This is hands down my favorite history book that I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of them. The story is so good that only a lousy storyteller could make it boring, but this author is talented enough to make a history book read like a page-turner. You can’t wait to see what happens next, even though you already know how it ends.
This is the still hard-to-believe tale of how 167 Spanish conquistadors under the command of Pizarro vanquished the greatest civilization South America had ever seen, a fast-rising Inca culture whose empire stretched thousands of miles across the Andes mountains. Deeply researched and with characters you want to cheer and jeer for, this is the one book to read before or during your trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell
Backpackers traveling around the world often end up gravitating to long novels and historical fiction for those many hours on buses and trains, especially if they’re in the region the book is about. I feel like I learned more about the history of Hong Kong and the British relationship with China in the Opium War days than I ever could have from any straight history text or college course.
This is from the author of more famous Shogun, which I never got around to except for watching the movie. I read a couple more of his epic books while backpacking around the world, however, and they were all very cinematic. Gai-Jin, King Rat, and Noble House revisit these places centuries later.
Fun fact: Clavell also wrote screenplays for books he didn’t write, including The Great Escape and the original 1950s version of The Fly.
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
Some of Naipaul’s books I’ve found annoying, frustrating, or both (especially A House for Mr. Biswas), but this one is profound and insightful.
A Bend in the River follows an Indian merchant who has been uprooted from his home and has settled in a new African nation at the bend of the Congo River, when Belgium still had influence and trading clout in parts of the continent. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see his initial excitement and optimism evolve as he is faced with the inevitable corruption, chaos, and nepotism that have become the hallmark of post-colonial Africa. Like most great historical fiction, when you finish the book you feel like you’ve lived in the places within its pages. Perhaps the most cohesive work from a masterful writer.
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Normally I wouldn’t include anything with a whiff of “how to” on this list. I write those kinds of books, so it’s not a criticism, but normally those are not the kind you just pick up and read for pleasure, with no trip in sight. This is one of the oddest travel books ever though, and I mean that in a good way.
Divided into the sections Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return, it intersperses the author’s experiences (usually befuddling or disappointing) with those from travelers and writers of old. For example, Botton’s thoughts on loneliness parallel the paintings of Edward Hopper and his views on the appeal of the exotic accompany journeys by Gustave Flaubert. Packed into this little book are dozens of profound revelations about the inherent folly of guidebooks, the difficulty of true observation for tourists, and the disappointment of coming home. “I returned to London from Barbados to find that the city had stubbornly refused to change.”
He also advises travelers to draw so they will see what they are seeing better. When I’ve actually taken the time to do that, I’ve learned that he’s probably on to something. The fact that this book still sells well after 16 years tells me it makes an impression so people keep recommending it to others. Check out a great interview with Alain de Botton from years ago on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
I could fill this whole blog post with Graham Greene books I’ve loved. If you’re a writer and find yourself stuck, just pick up anything of his and learn by osmosis. The obvious choice would be the one he wrote as a travel book: Journey Without Maps. Otherwise, The Quiet American makes a lot of “best of” lists and was a pretty good movie too.
The Power and the Glory was a great story (taking place in Mexico) and I really enjoyed Travels With My Aunt and the short story collection May We Borrow Your Husband? You probably know his The Third Man if you’re a film buff (made by Orson Welles after all), but that wasn’t a full novel.
The End of the Affair was a good book, not-so-good movie, but the audiobook would be worth a listen: it’s narrated by actor Colin Firth. I’m going to recommend one that is less polarizing: The Heart of the Matter. This takes place in West Africa during WWII but is a timeless story about love, longing, social status, religion, colonialism, and over all that, morality and the slippery slope. It’s one to savor slowly and enjoy, with a lot packed into its 250 pages.
Short Stories (any) by Somerset Maugham
Sure, read The Razor’s Edge (now 75 years old) as you go backpacking around India and you’ll find lots of lines that still ring true today. But if you’re going to spend some time in Southeast Asia as most round-the-world travelers do, pick up any of Somerset Maugham’s books of fictional short stories and dive in. They highlight a period of British colonialism that is long gone, but understanding that period is essential to understanding the region (especially Malaysia and Singapore). When the setting wanders to some other part of the globe, the stories are so good that the place is secondary anyway.
Somerset Maugham’s short story books are often sold as one-book collections from 1 to 4, but you can find combinations that are longer and these are in the public domain now in many countries, so they’re cheap as paperbacks or free as an e-book.
1491 and 1493 by Charles Mann
These are two very different books by the same author, basically “before Columbus” and “after Columbus.” Impeccably researched and full of stories told with flair, they’re eye-opening accounts of what the Americas were really like before the colonialists arrived (1491), then the impact the post-Columbus conquerors and traders had on the world we know now (after 1492). They’ll both blow your mind.
1491 upends most of what you read in history class and raises all kinds of questions about what “civilization” really means. It also shows us how much impact climate and building materials have on whether a historic culture is recognized centuries later or whether it just fades into the jungle overgrowth like the advanced societies of the Amazon did. If nothing else, 1491 will make you question whether your beliefs about history are grounded in facts or not, which is always a healthy challenge.
Then 1493 is full of fun facts that I still seem to pull out on a regular basis in conversations. Although it’s hard to believe, before the Spanish and Portuguese came to what is now known as the Americas, there were no tomatoes in Italy, no potatoes in Ireland, and no chilies in Thailand. In the other direction, there were no bananas in the “banana republics” of Central America and there was no coffee in Colombia. No beasts of burden in Latin America either apart from llamas–the Incas did most of that epic building work with human muscle.
You learn that the doomed British settlers heading to Jamestown thought the USA was as narrow as Panama (they were seeking a route to China). You read about how all the rubber in the world came from Brazil until seeds were smuggled out and replanted in Southeast Asia to break the monopoly. Fascinating stuff that will instantly make you feel smarter.
One of 100 Books About India
I feel like I’ve read at least 20 books about India and there are 80 more that I probably should. Authors from there win a wheelbarrow full of literary awards every year. The country is so full of contradictions, extremes, and shady characters that almost any story based in India is going to have plenty to draw from.
The most recent one I read is one of the best-known: Shantaram. I wish it had been a trilogy and I had only read the first two books because as a 944-page beast of dubious authenticity, it feels way too long and the more it goes on, the more it strains credulity. Lots of great insights though and the well-done language of Mumbai brought me right back.
I’ve read a few Salman Rushdie novels, but not what is probably the most popular one: Midnight’s Children. Some of the others you’ll see in the hands of many travelers are Holy Cow, Maximum City, The God of Small Things, City of Djinns, The White Tiger, and anything by Vikram Shandra.
Marching Powder by Thomas McFadden
If you’re looking for as wacky a true-life story as Shantaram but that’s not so crazy long, check out this truly fantastic story from Bolivia that has been spreading by word of mouth among travelers since its release in 2004. I have trouble explaining this book to people because it sounds so far-fetched, but back when the events took place, the largest jail in La Paz was basically a “pay-to-play” mini-city where broke criminals lived in horrid conditions while those with plenty of money had a life almost as good as on the outside. Some had multi-room apartments and their families lived with them, leaving each morning to go to work or school. There’s a cocaine factory inside one of the cells.
The protagonist in this book, a cocaine smuggler who got caught at the airport upon departure, learns the ropes after a while and eventually sets up his own business–yes, inside the jail–and runs tours for travelers passing through Bolivia. That’s how he meets the author, who eventually settles into the jail with him for months to get his whole story. The end result is a story you just can’t stop reading. Or in the case of the Marching Powder audiobook, stop listening to.
Collapse by Jared Diamond
I started with a tale of woe concerning the impact of humans on this planet, so I’ll end with a book that explores some of the biggest human settlement failures in history. We may never have all the answers as to why some civilizations and settlements collapsed, but Diamond brings out most of them and gets academics and historians to explore the most likely scenarios. Collapse is subtitled, “How societies choose to fail or succeed.”
This intriguing book explores the Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica, the builders of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Khmer of Angkor Wat, and my favorite–a Viking colony on Greenland that died out because they refused to eat fish! The latter part of the book looks at which societies are the most vulnerable now due to either inherent environmental problems or ones we’ve brought on ourselves.
Did you know that Australia is basically like a giant potted plant garden? The soil is poor almost everywhere on the continent, so the only way agriculture can continue is through artificial fertilizer. Take that away and the giant continent is hopeless for growing much of anything. Apparently China has been ravaging the land almost as long as people have lived there and that trend doesn’t look likely to end anytime soon.
If you want to explore the history of colonialism more, and really see how those conquistadors prevailed, read his excellent Germs, Guns, and Steel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is still a top seller. The title pretty much explains the invaders’ advantages…
I’ve left out a few obvious traveler favorites from this round-up of books about the world, but you can read all about those on someone else’s list. Just a few of these will keep you occupied until we can travel the world freely again.