The transforming power of a journey is a literary theme dating back to when the first humans gathered around the fire to share their stories. Non-fictional travel writing goes back a ways too, but may include some creative license on the part of the author in an effort to tell a good story. Mark Twain’s "A Tramp Abroad" is one such example. Below are ten books about the transformative power of travel, some well known, some not so well known, and a few by authors you may not have associated with the travel writing genre.
1. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Patagonia is less the subject and more the location for Bruce Chatwin’s anecdotal meditation on the mythologized, hard-to-confirm, and just plain weird. Chatwin was attempting to create a new form of travel writing that combined fictional accounts with historical data in order to take the reader to places even more unexpected than what they might imagine a place like Patagonia to be. Fellow travel writer Colin Thubron said, “In Patagonia isn’t a history of that area, it’s all about the strange inhabitants of it, and the weird leftovers.”
2. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
In the critically acclaimed travel memoir, "The Snow Leopard," Peter Matthiessen describes a demanding trip through the Himalayan mountains in search of the region’s rarer animals, including that mysterious leopard. Throughout the narrative, Matthiessen returns often to the memory of his late wife who shared his commitment to the Buddhist teachings that ultimately sustain him on this journey.
3. A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain
Author of some classic works of fiction involving travel, including Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s travel books are comedic yet reverent, blending autobiography, tall tales, travelogue, satire, and social criticism. The punningly titled, "A Tramp Abroad," recounts, in acerbic and self-mocking prose, Twain’s post-Civil War journey across Europe. The book’s appendix includes Twain’s infamous essay “The Awful German Language,” which will appeal to any contemporary traveler who has unsuccessfully attempted to master a foreign language.
4. A House in Bali by Colin McPhee
In 1930, American composer Colin McPhee heard a recording of Balinese gamelan music. McPhee was so moved by what he heard, he decided to travel to Bali to study and experience the country’s music and culture firsthand. This beautifully and accessibly written account of his time in Bali served as the inspiration for the opera “A House In Bali” (2010) composed by Evan Ziporyn.
5. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
On January 4, 1952, a young medical student named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna hopped on a beat-up motorcycle with his buddy Alberto Granada and began a eight-month road trip through South America. The journey, initially recorded in diary form and later turned into the narrative that became "The Motorcycle Diaries," had a profound impact on Guevara. The poverty, suffering and injustice he encountered in his travels awakened his political thinking and revolutionary spirit. And the course of Cuba’s history would be forever changed.
6. The Year Before The Flood by Ned Sublette
Musicology, sociology and travel memoir come together in one of the best books you’ll read about the city of New Orleans. The author, historian and musician Ned Sublette, is a Southerner based in New York City who temporarily relocates to New Orleans in the year before hurricane Katrina decimated the gulf coast to research the city’s history, especially its Spanish and African heritage. Throughout the book, Sublette tries to wrap his head around some of the uglier aspects of life in New Orleans, including random violence and pervasive poverty, while celebrating the creativity and resilience of its populace. Everything you didn’t know about New Orleans is in this book.
7. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
In one of the more unusual and unsettling travel books on this list, author and ethnologist Zora Neale Hurston recounts her 1930s journey to Haiti and Jamaica to document and participate in vodou (or voodoo) ceremonies. Hurston had previously encountered hoodoo and voodoo in her travels throughout the American South, especially while in New Orleans researching the life of the nineteenth century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. During Hurston’s Southern journey, she collected folk stories, anecdotes, and songs for her classic "Mules and Men."
8. Pole to Pole by Michael Palin
(hoarsely) “It’s…” Michael Palin! Palin, who is perhaps best known as member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, has enjoyed a second career as a travel addict. "Pole to Pole," as in from North Pole to South Pole, is the companion to the BBC television series of the same name, and includes additional details and personal reflections from Palin who wrote the book after filming. Palin bears the challenge of extreme traveling with tenacity and wit. At the top of his journey, seventeen miles from the North Pole, he writes: “I’m sure I’m not the only one of us looking down on this desolate wilderness who hasn’t wished, for an impure moment, that the North Pole, rather than being in the middle of an ocean, was solid, well-marked and even supplied with a hut and a coffee machine.”
9. Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon by Chuck Palahniuk
It is doubtful Portland's office of tourism recommends visitors read Chuck Palahniuk’s adults-only travel guide to the City of Roses. In "Fugitives and Refugees," Palahniuk, a Portland native, guides the reader through his city’s weird and wacky subculture, including the annual Santa Rampage, where several men dressed as Santa take time to harass the local police, and the semiannual Apocalypse Café, where guests celebrate a post-nuclear holocaust with a potluck. Throw in a lengthy chapter detailing the city’s striptease joints and you have the perfect travel guide for people who didn’t blink while watching “Fight Club.“
Jennifer Steil describes her book, "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky," as "…a memoir of the most challenging year of my life.” In 2006, Steil accepted an assignment to teach journalism to a group of amateur journalists at The Yemen Observer in Sana’a, the capital of The Republic of Yemen. The book describes Steil’s experience living in Yemen as a woman and as a westerner, along with the day-to-day challenges of managing a newsroom. It also sheds light on the life of Muslim women in a conservative Arab country.