These are the books that have inspired generations to travel, and to write: the best of their genre in the past 100 years – by Steve Keenan
The books featured below are the recommendations of several authors, including Rob Ryan, Victoria Hislop, Colin Thubron, Alexander McCall Smith and Douglas Kennedy. I also have recommendations from Angus Clarke, Ginny Light and Kate Quill, colleagues at The Times and timesonline.
The other choices are mine and purely subjective, aided by straw polls of other writers, perceived wisdom, Twitter and 40 years of reading travel literature. And the real pleasure in putting the list together has been in using the Times Archive to find original dispatches, reviews and features about the books.
It’s a list and and I am very conscious of no room for Gavin Young, William Dalrymple or Kerouac. You may also think some to be simply historical novels: but then Orwell, Hemingway or Steinbeck would be in. To me, these are pure travel books: ones that have inspired later generations to follow, or to find their own way.
20. FULL TILT: IRELAND TO INDIA WITH A BICYCLE by Dervla Murphy (1965)
When aged 10, Murphy was given a bike and atlas and she planned her trip. And, having finally ridden to India in 1963 on her bike, she then decided to stay and work with Tibetan refugee children. She was, said The Times, an inveterate traveller “looking at everything and putting it down with naivety and charm.” She had a daughter, Rachel, and stopped travelling for five years – but then set to again, with Rachel, covering India, South America and Madagascar (having previously covered Ethiopa by mule). She has written 24 travel books, the last – from Cuba was travelling with Rachel and her granddaughters in 2008. But it’s her solo trip by bike, aged, 31, after the death of her mother, that enthralls. She fought off thieves and a would-be rapist in Iran, fell in love with Afghanistan and recovered from broken bones and heatstroke. Inspiring.
19. THE ART OF TRAVEL by Alain de Botton (2002)
For me this is the definitive travel book, as it addresses the fundamental question of why we travel at all. With his usual mixture of wit and amazing intellectual insight, de Botton examines why travel is sometimes disappointing and suggests how we can make our experiences happier ones, and also identifies what it is that makes some journeys so pleasurable. He calls on other artists to provide insight into the subject too – Flaubert, Wordsworth, Hopper, all have something to tell us. De Botton reminds us that our own impressions, rather than the things that guidebooks tell us to look out for, are what really matter. He made me understand why I sometimes find a renaissance church dull and why an airport cafe can seem the most exciting place in the world. It is a masterpiece of travel writing – Victoria Hislop
18. A DRAGON APPARENT – TRAVELS IN INDO-CHINA by Norman Lewis (1951)
Caroline Moorhead wrote in The Times in 1983 that Lewis was “as much at home in fiction as in travelling, with precise detail and a gentle, self-mocking humour.” His trip to Indo-China was the book that was to kick-start his travel writing career – he went on to write another 10 travel books even after 1983. The Guardian obituary in 2002 recalls that he once stated that he preferred to produce ‘revealing little descriptions; I think of myself as the semi-invisible man’. Graham Greene called him one of the best writers of the century. He was also a passionate campaigner. An article he wrote for The Sunday Times in 1968 about the massacre of Brazilian Indians is credited with creating Survival International. Read the original 1952 Times review of Lewis’s next book, Travel in Burma – “That Mr Lewis is a very good traveller was obvious to readers of his book about Indo-China. Its successor is even better” – V.S.Pritchett, The Bookman.
17. THE GRANITE ISLAND by Dorothy Carrington (1971)
She was so captivated by Corsica on her first visit to the island, in 1948, that she never left. She wrote the book in 1971 and died in 2002. There is a memorial in Ajaccio’s Marin cemetery, with a quotation from the book on its base – “…that Corsica would be my lot.” I don’t think I have ever read a better book devoted to one destination over such a period of years. The traveller is a beneficiary of her accrued knowledge of the island, her immersion in a life of bandits and hunters. Unsurprisingly, her marriage didn’t last but her love of Corsica did: two other books and several articles followed this, the definitive book on the island.
16. CUT STONES AND CROSSROADS – A JOURNEY IN PERU by Ronald Wright (1984)
Good travel writing is many things, most of them involving adjectives. The best travel writing teaches you to see – to see the things which, as a newcomer in a foreign place, you might not understand or even notice. Inca stonework is a good example. Go to Cuzco in Peru and you see it, everywhere – walls, buildings, doorways. Even the dimmest package tourist will notice it – but you need help to start seeing it, really seeing. That, for me, was the main revelation in Cut Stones and Crossroads. Sure he does the history, the archaeology, the food (such as it is), the dangers, the mysterious juxtapositions of ancient traditions clashing with the modern world, and he does it all with humour, honesty and a certain poetic clarity, but what he does best is Inca stonework. He dwells on the variety of textures, the astonishing sculptural skill, the complete absence of straight lines. He explains how the bizarre beauty of the stonework is intimately related to its resistance to earthquakes. So, instead of complicated black rocks in the rain 3,750m up the Andes you see a subtle, consciously articulated aesthetic tradition. You see the stone equivalent of Abu Simbel, Bach’s chorales, take your pick. Revelatory – Angus Clarke
15. NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND by Bill Bryson (1995)
Bill Bryson’s farewell tour of Britain, after 20 years living in his adopted home, is an affectionate and amusing read. His tales of meeting eccentric people and visiting the extremities of the country are catalogued in typical Bryson style – observant, witty and engaging. One of the most memorable sections is his bewilderment at some of Britain’s bizarre place names – Titsey and Shellow Bowells among them. There are rants too – his derision for the destruction of historic buildings, town planning and traffic lights is sincere, but not wearisome, thanks to his droll prose. It is Britons who will enjoy this book most – a reminder to feel affection, rather than irritation, for the foibles and oddities of this small island – Ginny Light
14. THE SILK ROAD: BEYOND THE CELESTIAL KINGDOM by Colin Thubron (1989) “Modern travel writing has always been created with a certain amount of gimmickry,” Thubron told The Times, “which surprises me because I don’t really understand why you have to do that. The world abroad seems sufficiently extraordinary and peculiar without my having to resort to all that.” Forty years of travel writing has resulted in an epic library: a romantic, who travelled alone, whether driving through Russia in a Morris Minor or walking the Great Wall of China two years before his Silk Road masterpiece. He was to return to the Silk Road for a 2006 book, walking the 7,000 miles
13. LOVE AND WAR IN THE APENNINES by Eric Newby (1971)
“The Italian government had collapsed, and the Germans were in disarray, when Newby walked out of his prison camp and into the arms of the Italian resistance fighters in the nearby mountains — the mountains of Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, pasta and red wine,” reads the website of cycle tour company Experience Plus. Newby returned to italy in 1956 with his wife Wanda – who he met while on the run. And he finally wrote the book of his life among the Italian resistance (read the full background to the book on Wikipedia) after he became Travel Editor at The Observer. Many pure travel books were to follow but it was this book which fired his imagination – and that of other writers to come, including Alexander McCall Smith.
12. BRAZILIAN ADVENTURE by Peter Fleming (1934)
It began with a classified ad in the ‘Agony column’ of The Times: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given. Write Box X.’Peter Fleming was working on The Spectator. He had just met his future bride Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter), yet the pull of finding the lost Colonel Percy Fawcett was too much. He signed up, with a commission from The Times to send dispatches from the Matto Grosso. It ended with two rival teams racing back down the Amazon to put their side of the story of fiasco and incompetence first. He described it as “an venture for which Rider Haggard might have written the plot and Conrad designed the scenery”. Evelyn Waugh, though, supplied the characters and dialogue: “Sao Paulo is like Reading, only much farther away”. Taut, gripping and sardonic, the book made Peter as famous as his brother Ian would later become. It is dated only in the sheer number of animals Fleming manages to shoot – Rob Ryan From the archive: The Times’ news report in January, 1933, on developments seven years after Fawcett’s disappearance From the archive: read The Times’ review of Brazilian Adventure, August 1934
11. IN PATAGONIA by Bruce Chatwin (1977)
In Patagonia, published in 1978, is an “autobiografictional” travelog, says The Literary Encyclopedia, which both records and imagines the fulfilment of one of Chatwin’s childhood fascinations, namely to retrace the travel adventures of his grandmother’s uncle, Charley Milward, seadog, entrepreneur, and globetrotting family legend, who had died in Punta Arenas, Chile. In his review in The Times in 1977, Paul Theroux wrote that Chatwin saw practically all of Patagonia, travelling by foot, boat, bus and train, adding: “He has fulfilled the desire of all real travellers, of having found a place that is far and strange and seldom visited, like The Land Where The Jumblies Live.”
10. INTO THE HEART OF BORNEO by Redmond O’Hanlon and James Fenton (1984)
One of the most oft-repeated stories heard on my travels in the 80s was when somebody was taking a leak in a convenient stream. “Remember that story about the creepie crawlie that climbed up O’Hanlon’s urine while peeing in a river,” was the refrain. And it was true, well – it came from this book. Not so much Victorian explorers, more a precursor of Ray Mears, O’Hanlon and Fenton’s foray into Borneo for The Sunday Times, accompanied by a bunch of SAS soldiers, was a riot of humour and self-deprecation – the template for much of the travel writing that was to follow. As a natural historian, O’Hanlon also managed to add an Attenborough-esque edge to the book. But not at the expense of the laughs
9. TRIESTE AND THE MEANING OF NOWHERE by Jan Morris (2001)
What I love about this is the way she tussles with the intangible qualities of a place, those things you can never quite put your finger on. So much travel writing is concerned with the factual, the real – which often makes it dull to read, because it doesn’t ask any questions, it just records. This book is different. It’s a study of a faded, unexceptional city, but one that gets under your skin. Morris first visited as a soldier in WWII and she writes: “Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself. What am I here for? Where am I going?” And a brilliant, brilliant title,
8. ROAD TO OXIANA by Robert Byron (1933)
A collage of … little playlets, and what going on is another book that gave me to realise what was possible to the whole genre of travel writing” – Colin Thubron, who also nominated Freya Stark (“Her books gave me a wonderful sense of the beauty possible in travel writing”) and Patrick Leigh Fermor (Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, 1958). Read the 1937 review of Oxiana in The Times – plus read the 1981 review of Oxiana, when it was reprinted by Picador – “Byron is the Mozart of travel writers: only Byron chose his librettos better,” wrote reviewer Stewart Perowne
7. MANI – TRAVEL IN THE SOUTHERN PELOPONNESE by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1958)
I believe the very greatest travel writer of the 20th century was Fermor. This book is beautifully written, so vivid, but he uses a Latinate prose. You learn this is a man who has had a classical education – if he didn’t, I don’t know how he would do it. It is an absolutely marvellous and wonderful book – Alexander McCall Smith, who also nominated From The Holy Mountain (William Dalrymple) and Tours of the Trabazond (Rose Macaulay).
6. AS I WALKED OUT ONE MIDSUMMER MORNING – Laurie Lee (1969)
Part memoir, part travel book. Unforgettable portrait of Spain before and during the Civil War, full of colour, romance, adventure and unforgettable imagery. I fell in love with Spain as a teenager long before I visited the country, thanks to this book – Kate Quill
5. ARABIA THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Jonathan Raban (1979)
Arabia had a profound effect on this writer when he stumbled across it at the start of the l980s. Travelling through the Gulf States, through the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Yemen, Raban produced a book that was so prescient in its understanding of the vast seismic gulf that separates the West from the Arab world, while also capturing the region at a moment when the struggle between Islamic and Occidental values was beginning to percolate. Arabia also announced the arrival of one of the great prose stylists in travel literature – and it showed me that the ‘travel book’ could be constructed as a fiction that happened – an one which has with all the narrative force and complexity of great fiction – Douglas Kennedy
4. THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR by Paul Theroux (1975)
“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” begins Paul Theroux on his adventures in The Great Railway Bazaar. His four-month passage across Asia’s legendary train routes included the Direct-Orient Express (a service launched in 1962 and withdrawn completely in 1977, ending all direct service from Paris to Istanbul or Athens). He also covered the Khyber Pass Local and the Trans-Siberian Express and describes the many places, cultures and sounds he encounters as well as the people he met along his journey.
3. ANTARCTICA THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
Travel writing at its most extreme. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the paying members of Scott’s second Antarctic expedition. The other was Captain Lawrence Oates. Cherry, as he was known, was well-liked but ill-suited to polar travel. He couldn’t navigate and his glasses steamed or iced up frequently. Nevertheless he and two companions made the Worst Journey, a quest to bag Emperor penguin eggs in the middle of Antarctic winter. He, Edward Wilson and Birdie Bowers (both later to die with Scott in a tent eleven miles from safety) set out from Cape Evans to the rookery at Cape Crozier (‘the windiest place on earth’). Cherry had blistered his hands by day two. They hit blizzards and whiteouts and temperatures of minus seventy. At one point Cherry turned his head to speak to Wilson and his hood froze solid. He couldn’t turn back. They used up their oil and food. They lost their tent. They should have died, but made it back in pitiful condition. Their clothes had to be chipped off. Scott wrote: “They look more weatherworn that anyone I have yet seen. Their faces were scared and wrinkled, their eyes dull, their hands whitened with constant exposure to damp and cold.” Cherry’s description of the events is horrific and moving. But this isn’t just a book about that foolhardy expedition. It is also about Scott and his doomed party. Cherry was the man who took the dogs to One Ton Camp to await the doomed polar party. If he had taken the dogs further on, he might have found the dying men. This haunted him for the rest of his life and that sense of regret oozes from the book. This brings added poignancy to what is the greatest account ever written about men on the ice – Rob Ryan
2. A WINTER IN ARABIA by Freya Stark (1940)
Stark wrote more than 20 books on her travels, but her soul belonged to Arabia. As well as travel writing, Stark was also an archaeologist, geographer and historian. The book covers her trip with two companions – a journey chronicled at the time in The Times. Between July 18-20, 1938, Stark wrote about their expedition to the Hadhramaut, in Southern Arabia – now Yemen. The trio headed to the Frankincense road at Hureidha, as part of their brief to begin “the systematic and hitherto almost unattempted excavation of the pre-Islamic sites in this vast region.”
1. THE DANAKIL DIARY: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-4 by Wilfred Thesiger (1996)
Thesiger travelled for three decades from 1930 as an explorer, military career and historian in Arabia and Africa – but it was not until the 1960s that he started to set down his stories in print. Perhaps the best known is his first, Arabian Sands, which dealt with the Bedouin life in what is now Oman’s Empty Quarter. But in 1996, seven years before his death, he published The Danakil Diary, which covered his trip more than six decades earlier to Abyssinia (now Ethiopa), in search of the source of the Hawash River. As was reported in The Times in November, 1934, not only was the expedition successful, but Thesiger collected “much valuable information” about the country – bringing back 880 specimens of birds. The report of his presentation to The Royal Geographical Society continued: “The exploration of the Dankali country has always been handicapped by. the savage disposition of the inhabitants, and only in Aussa, where the Sultan rules with an iron hand, are peace and security to be found. Mr.Thesiger was well received by this ruler, and in his lecture he dealt with the Sultanate of Aussa in some detail….”