Travel: It’s Not Just For Armchairs

shelved under Travel & Places

I generally avoid the term armchair traveler because it ascribes a certain timidity to a reader of travel narratives. I’ve traveled myself, sometimes in comfort and style, and at other times I’ve ridden hundreds of lonely miles on my bicycle, so I’m not just someone who reads about travel to avoid doing it. A good travel narrative, like a good trip, should be both enjoyable and challenging, and it should teach you something along the way. To me, a good travel book is distinguished more by the quality of the writing than by the nature of the trip. If you join me on this journey, you can leave your camera at home, because the authors have taken all the pictures with their words.



by Claudio Magris, translated by Patrick Creagh

This description of a journey from the river’s source to its mouth is a tour de force of erudition. A cultural, historical and literary survey of the personalities, artists, composers, writers, soldiers and kings who lived or worked, created, fought or died along the Danube’s banks, the book is also a meditation on the traveler’s motivations and the writer’s craft. “Writing may not really be able to give a voice to utter desolation, to the nullity of life, to those moments when it is simply a void, privation and horror. The mere fact of writing in some way fills that void, gives it form, makes the horror of it communicable and therefore, even if minimally, triumphs over it.”


A Time of Gifts

by Jan Morris, Patrick Leigh Fermor

At the age of 18 Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on a backpacking tour of Europe. What set him apart from the tens of thousands of other collegiate adventurers is the fact that he did it in 1934, well before the advent of Eurail passes and youth hostels, long before the road he took was a beaten path. What makes this book so enjoyable is the fact that while he took copious notes of his adventures, he waited more than forty years to write it. He lived a full and varied life as traveler and scholar, and during World War II he served behind German lines and organized the Greek resistance. Through it all, he never lost the youthful enthusiasm with which he embarked on his journey, and his narrative, distilled through a lifetime of living and learning is a unique blend of wide-eyed innocence and world-weary erudition.


Come Hell or High Water: A Really Sullen Memoir

by Gregory Jaynes

Confronting what the mundane would call his midlife crisis, Gregory Jaynes decided he needed a break from his twenty years as a foreign correspondent and columnist, and booked passage on a cargo ship bound from Liverpool to the South Pacific. The facts of his situation soon gave the lie to the jaunty nautical adventure he’d envisioned. The ship was a Russian icebreaker, and the few crew members who spoke English were surly. The other passengers were, as he put it, “a furlong closer to heaven” than he was. Still, the first night at dinner they appeared to be lively companions, good conversationalists with a broad repertoire of entertaining tales. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, until the second evening, when they all told the same stories. Jaynes’ story is, as he promises, really sullen, but in the telling, he is delightful.


The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

by Robert D. Kaplan

On one level Kaplan can be viewed as the Jerry Springer of travel writing, because in the same way Springer is given to presenting the most bizarrely dysfunctional individuals and their families, Kaplan is drawn to the most dysfunctional nations on earth. Kaplan goes from Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, in search of cultures teetering on the edge of collapse or already past the tipping point. He spares no details, pulls no punches, but through it all, keeps his sense of humor, his humanity, and most important, his flawless grasp of the narrative technique.


At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay

by John Gimlette

By far the best title on the list, Gimlette does with a microscope what Kaplan did with a wide-angle lens: he explores societal dysfunction. In this case, he traveled extensively throughout Paraguay, recounting in lively and readable writing the quirky and often brutal rulers, the bizarre and bloody wars, and the societal rifts which make Paraguay constantly hover on the far edge of normality. A great read.


Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents

by Jim Malusa

His mother wouldn’t see him off at the airport when Jim Malusa set off to ride his bike to the lowest spot on every continent not covered with 1,500 feet of ice. She said she didn’t want to cry in public. Though he reminded her that he’d avoided death his entire life, she wasn’t convinced. So he set off without his mother’s blessings, in search of adventure, and more important, in search of roads heading downhill. Malusa brings a scientist’s eye to the terrain and its denizens, and a humorist’s perspective to his varied ordeals. As a solitary long-distance cyclist, I definitely enjoyed his description of his journeys.


Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

by Jon Krakauer

I’ll never forget waking up to the sound of Krakauer’s quavering, shattered voice on NPR the morning after the disaster on Mt. Everest in 1996. Reading Krakauer’s book, I felt the cold, the terror, the horrors of that fateful day. It also launched me on an obsessive campaign to read every account written by the survivors. Krakauer got some things wrong, which makes sense, since he witnessed a disaster during a blizzard while shivering at 27,000 feet. From those accounts I moved on to read other accounts of other, sometimes more successful expeditions to Everest. It was while reading one, called High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, by Michael Kodas, that I came to peace with the term armchair traveler. I’ve never scaled a mountain which didn’t have a parking lot within 200 yards of the summit, so when it comes to alpine expeditions, I truly am an armchair traveler. But wherever Krakauer wants to go, I want to hitch a ride in his backpack.


No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks

by David Roberts, Ed Viesturs

Ed Viesturs was on Mt. Everest that fateful day in 1996. He was lead climber for David Brashears, who was running an expedition for MacGillivray Freeman Films, to shoot an IMAX film of the ascent. They had to put their own project on hold in order to help rescue some of the survivors. Viesturs is one of the few people to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, and he did it without the aid of supplemental oxygen, which places him in a still more elite circle. No Shortcuts to the Top is more an autobiography than a travel narrative, but his descriptions of his various climbs, his victories and defeats, is captivating and real. Viesturs’ motto has always been “reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory,” which is one reason he was still around to write this book.


An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

by Jason Elliot

The unexpected light of the title refers to the clarity of the air, the luminosity of the sunlight of the rugged landscape of Afghanistan. Yet it could as easily been a description of the people Jason Elliot met during his daring, perhaps foolhardy sojourn through a nation torn by civil war in the late 1990s. It isn’t an ideological treatise, nor a piece of war correspondence, though those elements exist. It is, first and foremost, an elegant piece of travel writing.


Serpent in Paradise

by Dea Birkett

When the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied, they didn’t disappear, but set up a colony on Pitcairn Island. Their descendants exist to this day in one of the more bizarre outposts from civilization in the world. Insular, incestuous, xenophobic, they resisted Dea Birkett’s efforts to visit, and once she was there, they resisted still more strenuously her bid to enter their society. When they finally relented, their welcome was more frightening than their rejection, and ultimately, she had to flee from their embrace. The result of this is a wonderfully written, compellingly told story.