Top literary travel books

These are my favorite literary travel books. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. You’ll see that I particularly like the witty books by the great British travel writers.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

True amateurs wander around Afghanistan, with the best punch line since “nobody’s perfect” in Some Like It Hot. Now that Lonely Planet has brought out a reprint, this classic is creating a new generation of fans.

Into the Heart of Borneo: Redmond O’Hanlon

What happens when two Brit literati and three Iban guides see who can outprank each other. Simply hilarious.

No Mercy: Redmond O’Hanlon

A far darker outing from O’Hanlon. No Mercy finds the author in the Congo to explore remote Lake Tele, home of a reputed strange dinosaurlike creature.

O’Hanlon explores the mindset of the Congolese, where magic is just another form of reality — a theme also found in An Amateur’s Guide to the Planet, in its examination of a candomble ceremony in Brazil.

The British poet’s guides, Marcellin and Nzo, find time for obsessions with sex as well as fetishes during their often-arduous circuits through the interior. The reader learns of the near-servitude of the Pygmies to village Congolese. The fascinating closing segment explores O’Hanlon’s nursing of an orphaned gorilla, his near-loss of sanity, and how his guides found him too reserved and (ultimately) less human than an American in the party, a professor named Lary.

The complex and heartbreaking aspirations of his gentle third guide, Manu, close No Mercy in a way that could serve as a shout of anguish from the soul of a continent whose people get no second chances in life.

One complaint I raise as a journalist is the unexplained method by which O’Hanlon renders page upon page of dialogue, particularly several thousand words of unbroken dialogue in Manu’s closing conversation with him.

Can O’Hanlon really remember dialogue that clearly? Possibly, but I feel he, or someone, should explain whether he was taking notes, tape recording, or memorizing (?) Manu’s heartfelt soliloquy and other extensive dialogue presented in this nonfiction work.

Travels With Myself and Another: Martha Gellhorn

Chokingly funny account of Gellhorn’s 1940s visit to wartime China with her husband, Unwilling Companion Ernest Hemingway, and other essays.

The Beach: Alex Garland

Anyone who has visited Asia, Africa or Latin America seeking the perfect beach will pick up this novel and be drawn in by its story of such a quest among backpackers in Thailand.

However, the initial premise of idealistic wanderlust quickly gives way to far darker goings-on. Perfectly drawn scenes from the Koh Samui/Koh Phanghan circuit of young drifters that could apply to the Goa-Lamu-Bali set as well.

And Garland shows amazing maturity in his first work, neatly updating how humans behave when unconstrained by society, the theme explored in “Lord of the Flies.”

The Ends of the Earth: Robert D. Kaplan

Kaplan explores the wreckage of Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan, Cambodia and places in between, finding venality, mismanagement, danger, violence, a breakdown of cultural fabric and disease.

Only in India, where he visits a southern community involved in innovative agriculture practices, does he find anything to cheer.

On the one hand this is a fascinating look at places not quite as bad as the destinations visited by P.J. O’Rourke in “Holidays in Hell” but still interesting for their amazing decay.

On the other hand, Kaplan seems overly obsessive about the tin roofs of the Third World, and his observations are just about opposite to those in An Amateur’s Guide to the Planet, which found much for the United States to learn from the developing world.

It would be interesting to find out why Kaplan and myself come to different conclusions. Is it the different places we’ve been? Or our personalities?

The Ends of the Earth argues quite believably that borders, which only became fixed within the last half-century, are falling away once more as ethnic links reign supreme once again.

The Great Railway Bazaar: Paul Theroux

A grand tour from London to Vladivostok, with particularly intriguing accounts of India and Burma. The book that launched the travel writing career of one of the modern greats.

Dave Barry Does Japan

Filled with a Regular Joe’s bafflement over Japan, yet hilarious and deceptively insightful.

Holidays in Hell: P.J. O’Rourke

El Salvador, Poland, the Philippines, Lebanon and other non-destinations full of thugs with cousins in Detroit.

Muddling Through in Madagascar: Dervla Murphy

Stoic hilarity as Murphy and her daughter ride bush taxis through a surreal land.

The Songlines: Bruce Chatwin

A paean to the human need to move, synergizing Chatwin’s Australia trip with others’ observations on nomadism.

The Poisonwood Bible: Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is the only work of fiction I have recommended as a “literary travel book,” but its transcendant strengths of cultural observation earn it a place among the nonfiction giants.

How remarkable as well to read this book directly after “No Mercy”! In both books, the greatest and smallest aspects of life in the Congo are utterly consistent, in a way that suggests the essential truth-seeking of both O’Hanlon the travel writer and Kingsolver the novelist.

In both books, rampaging ants kill living animals (including a slowly writhing chicken described in “No Mercy”. O’Hanlon’s description evokes horror, while Kingsolver finds necessity in everything in the jungle — including ants that clean every scrap of organic matter from a jungle with few other ways to purity itself.

Both authors note the social necessity of belief in a spirit world to Congolese who may well need, whether or not scientists have arrived to buttress their everyday observations, to avoid certain places associated with death and disease. Recall, the extraordinarily isolated and fertile Congo is the home of the Ebola virus and many other life forms, presumably both useful and malevolent.

Kingsolver explores the Price family, missionaries led by a tyrannical father into the jungle on the very eve of independence. Father’s brutality and obliviousness are documented through different voices — that of his wife, Orleanna, and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May.

What a command of story Kingsolver has. Despite the family’s overbearing patriarch, any passages are laugh-out-loud funny. Adah’s and Rachel’s plays on the English language are inspired. Leah’s openness to African physical beauty ring so true, and Ruth May, initially the unflappable playmate of the little African children, truly pays the “price” for her father’s stubbornness.

Kingsolver seems too reflexively in favor of socialism as a political solution to African problems, as articulated by Leah’s growing relationship with her adopted continent. Leah wholeheartedly supports reformers as if they were saints, and mocks Rachel’s quite different path.

But aside from some preachiness from Leah, Kingsolver has written something close to a masterpiece that rings with cultural insights on how Americans fare in Africa, a theme also explored in An Amateur’s Guide to the Planet, in a chapter on Kenya and Tanzania on “America’s love-hate relationship with Africa.”

Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars: Paul Fussell

A great historian’s look at British travel writers between the wars delves brilliantly into the distinctions between exploration, travel and tourism; romance on the road; what creates a “travel atmosphere;” the lost era when travel was “one of the cheapest ways of living” and how travel books can serve as moral entertainment and essays.