Who are your favorite travel writers?
October 29, 2010 6:10 AM   Subscribe

What is your favorite travel book/essay/blog? Who are your favorite travel writers?

I'm in the beginning stages of brainstorming my thesis for my writing program, and I'm heavily considering writing a travel piece. I'd like to have a look around at some of the more successful approaches to the subject, and would like to get my hands on as much material as possible while I explore the idea a bit. I'm trying to focus heavily on creative non-fiction/personal essays rather than guide books. My own initial thoughts were books like Great Plains by Ian Fraizer or Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

I'll take recommendations on books, essays, short stories, blogs, authors, etc.

Thanks so much!
posted by rinosaur to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
This is an off-kilter answer, but you're in a writing program and interested in travel writing, you should definitely read W.G. Sebald, even though it's not strictly non-fiction (the line is blurry in his work). Austerlitz, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn are all excellent. The thing you always read about Sebald is that his work is about memory, but much of it is also about wandering alone through European cities, somewhat in the flâneur tradition.
posted by Beardman at 6:17 AM on October 29, 2010

Pretty much anything by William Dalrymple. He's tremendously erudite, but also immensely entertaining and wonderfully easy to read.
posted by Ahab at 6:17 AM on October 29, 2010

Len Beadell's book "Too Long in the Bush" about creating the Gunbarrel Highway in Australia is a good read and sort-of travelish.

Christopher Robbins' "Apples Are from Kazakhstan" travelogue is Brysoneque in some ways and enjoyable.

It's not so much a travel book as a memoir of a place, but Peter Godwin's "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun" is a very engaging, and rather sad, read.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:19 AM on October 29, 2010

Anything by Ryszard Kapuściński. He is the master of the travelogue.
posted by luke1249 at 6:22 AM on October 29, 2010

This is going to sound really weird, but this travelogue is one of the best I've ever read. Even if it is about a trip from Texas to a gaming convention in Nevada.
posted by griphus at 6:34 AM on October 29, 2010

You'll want to check out the International Society for Travel Writing and the journal Studies in Travel Writing if you're interested in scholarly approaches to the topic. Look through STW's past issues to see what authors and approaches are being discussed. Bryson doesn't get much scholarly attention since he's seen as sort of a "pop" writer, but browsing the journal may help you with deciding what scholarly conversations are important to that field and where you might be able to contribute. This page lists a couple of other journals you may want to check. You'll likely have to Interlibrary Loan some of this stuff because it's not well represented in the common databases.

If you want a work by a more literary person, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley doesn't have nearly the scholarly attention that you'd expect, so there's a lot of room to make your mark there while still having a traditional literary person to study. Personal favorites include Jonathan Raban, William Least-Heat Moon, and a bunch of one-offs I've found in used bookstores. ISTW has a Top Ten list that may help focus your attention as well. Bryson's Lost Continent is on there, but not Walk in the Woods. Also, subscribe to ISTW's newsletter so you can get information on conferences and publication venues you might explore for your work. You'll also get a better handle on the theoretical approaches and methodologies that are accepted in the field.

I know that's maybe more than you were asking for, but Travel Writing is so big and yet so understudied, I thought these resources might help you from a scholarly standpoint more than a big list of books I like.
posted by BlooPen at 6:42 AM on October 29, 2010

It a little dated but how about Blue Highways? William Least Heat-Moon also wrote other travel type books.
posted by notned at 6:50 AM on October 29, 2010

Michael Palin, ex of Monty Python, is now a highly regarded travel writer.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:55 AM on October 29, 2010

My travel-writing tastes tend toward wilderness expeditions, but one of my favorites is Helen Thayer's Polar Dream in which she skis (solo, except for a dog) to the magnetic north pole.

My roommate is pretty fond of Tuva or Bust, about perennial MeFi darling Richard Feynman, which only sort of manages to be a travelogue in the strictest sense, but is pretty pleasing for all that.
posted by dorque at 6:58 AM on October 29, 2010

Patrick Leigh Fermor - A Time of Gifts
David Foster Wallace - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
Neal Stepenson - Mother Board Mother Earth
posted by rabbitsnake at 6:58 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Anything by Tim Cahill.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is essentially a travel peice.
posted by joyride at 7:08 AM on October 29, 2010

You sounds more serious than would acoomodate P.J. O'Rourke's "Holidays in Hell" or any of Tim Cahill's books, but their humor does serve to point out travel writing is often way too serious.

O'Rourke's book includes a number of pieces where he wanders into places deemed otherwise too dangerous to travel (in the late 1980's, BTW), asking quesitons and looking for a drink; his larger thesis is that people are pretty much just people, though sometimes they treat each other quite poorly. Cahill's books were just funny and adventurous.

"Riding the Iron Rooster" and Theroux's other books, by comparison, can be weighty with Significance and Observation. I read them, but with more effort than I read either of the first two authors.

Oh, have you read "A Small Island" by Bryson? It was sort of a good-bye and love letter to the U.K. before he came back to the U.S., and it was HUGELY popular there. I liked it, too, having seen a bit of England.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:12 AM on October 29, 2010

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux is just wonderful.
posted by greenfelttip at 7:18 AM on October 29, 2010

Bill Bryson's travel books are always funny, personal and just plain fun. wenestvedt mentioned "Notes From a Small Island". Highly recommended, but the others are good too.
posted by Decani at 7:55 AM on October 29, 2010

Seconding Patrick Leigh Fermor - he is tremendously erudite, wonderfully lyrical, has amazing adventures and what he describes just doesn't exist anymore.

For toughness and endurance you can't beat Dervla Murphy. She biked and walked all around the (mostly developing) world in the seventies and 80s. Her "On a Shoestring to Coorg" is her "taking it easy" with a six-year old in tow, and is a very good introduction. She's hard-headed, un-PC and seems to make friends everywhere.

Eric Newby is another old-school trekker, wonderfully self-deprecating and understated, probably very "English" to anyone outside Britain. His chaotic "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" is what made his name.

Road To Oxiana by Robert Byron is considered a classic, it's very heavy on the architecture.

John Hillaby is fairly gentle. Journey Through Europe covers the same ground as the start of PLF.

Laurie Lee - As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning - read this tied to a chair so you don't get up and do the same.

These are people who really knew their stuff, in a different league to the "Round x (Country) with a x (kitchen appliance) comedy-landfill-aren't other people weird-travel"!
posted by runincircles at 8:05 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've always loved this George Saunders piece on a trip to Dubai: the New Mecca.
posted by chalkbored at 8:10 AM on October 29, 2010

Pico Iyer
was going to mention Dervla Murphy but runincircles beat me to it!
posted by nnk at 8:22 AM on October 29, 2010

I liked Adventure Divas, which focuses on visiting female "unsung visionaries” around the world.

There are so many travel blogs out there its hard to give you direction. I read Joe's Trippin' because he spends time in places you don't hear as much about, like Yemen. Big Africa Cycle is written by a guy biking around Africa. He was attacked with a machete and has some interesting stories. Mike at vagabonding was one of the early travel bloggers. His site isn't currently being updated but he has a lot of content. I could probably come up with a lot more (my travel blog started in 2003), but most aren't necessarily "finished" pieces of writing like you would find with a memoir or published travel book.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:24 AM on October 29, 2010

Some great suggestions here. A couple of my own favorites who haven't been mentioned are Colin Thubron and Redmond O'Hanlon.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:32 AM on October 29, 2010

Travels With Myself and Another (1978) by Martha Gellhorn. The subtitle on my copy referred to it as a collection of her worst adventures.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:36 AM on October 29, 2010

Almost anything by Jan Morris and Travels with the Flea by Jim Perrin. And a lot of the essays in his book The Climbing Essays are travel essays.
posted by sianifach at 9:24 AM on October 29, 2010

Bruce Chatwin is fantastic.
posted by djgh at 9:34 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really love Kevin Rushby's travel/history books:

Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man's Journey Through Ethiopia and Yemen

Children of Kali: Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult, and the British Raj

Hunting Pirate Heaven: In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean

Chasing the Mountain of Light: Across India on the Trail of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond.

These are well written travelogues in which the author explores the history of some fascinating subcultures... such as khat addicts/afficianados in Ethiopia and Yemen, the thuggee cult of strangling thieves in India, pirates working off the coast of Africa, and the ruins left in the wake of the "cursed" Koh-i-Noor diamond...
posted by cinemafiend at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing Blue Highways. Also highly recommend Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck. Love that book!
posted by lvanshima at 11:16 AM on October 29, 2010

Jan Morris! Definitely Jan Morris. Especially her "Europe" - its a review/summary of 50 years of travel writing, and is all you need to know about the continent.
posted by runincircles at 3:13 PM on October 29, 2010

Seconding Pico Iyer- he's the best. Video night in Katmandu, and he has (at least) two more, one about japan, and one about the 'global village' concept. He's a great writer and his east/west essays are amazing.
posted by bquarters at 6:21 PM on October 29, 2010

Tim Moore might suit you. The sentence that produced my man-crush on him is from Continental Drifter: in describing a village in France that, very unusually, still has a pre-Revolution statue of a local noble, he says that the citizens opted not to melt it down for bullets but rather decided that the more effective insult was to omit all mention of the subject and just put up a new plaque telling passersby about the artisan whose work it was. "Only in France could you find an orator capable of convincing an angry mob to discard its pitchforks in favor of irony."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:30 PM on October 29, 2010

Seconding and thirding Theroux, Iyer, and Newby. Definitely "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush"
posted by jindc at 8:36 PM on October 29, 2010

I was also going to mention Sebald, and I'm delighted to see he was the first person named in the thread.

One of the best travel books I've read recently is Isolarion by James Attlee. It's unusual, for a travel book, because it's all about a single street near Attlee's home in Oxford. But obviously, it's about much more than the actual journey. (The same street, incidentally, appears in lightly fictionalized form in the novel In a land of plenty by Tim Pears.)

Findings by Kathleen Jamie is lovely, too. More a set of linked essays than an account of a single journey, and again, she travels a long way without going far from home. I haven't read her earlier book The Golden Peak, about travels in northern Pakistan, republished after 9/11 with a slightly opportunistic new title from the publisher.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith's Travels with a Tangerine had a silly title, but leaves you in awe of Ibn Battutah, the 14th-century Moroccan traveller whose journeys it very partially retraces--he covered about 75,000 miles over land and sea. (Mackintosh-Smith does some of it by plane.) It's a rich and thoughtful voyage.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:48 PM on October 29, 2010

Haven't read it in years, but I recall Danziger's Travels being a bit of a gem.
posted by Ahab at 4:13 AM on October 30, 2010

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