25 Greatest Travel Books of All Time
From the bustling streets of Brooklyn to the empty expanse of the Sahara, our guide to the best travel reads of all time will inspire you to add a few new places to your to-go list. Your first stop? The local library.
Window to: Australia.
Much has changed in Southeast Asia, but—more than 20 years after its publication—Iyer's snapshots of 10 countries there remain among the best of their kind. During short visits, Iyer peeks in at the golden age of Bollywood cinema, uncovers the seedy sex-tourism explosion in Thailand, and explores Nepal's enlightenment economy: "Religion and drugs had been the country's two great cash crops for so long now that nobody really seemed to care which one was sedative and which one stimulant."
Window to: India, Thailand, Nepal, China, Bali, Tibet, Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines.
Krakauer's two classics—Into the Wild and Into Thin Air—were published in the span of just two years. Into Thin Air—a riveting first-person retelling of a season of bad choices and disaster on Mt. Everest—drew more headlines. But it's his earlier work, which tells the mysterious story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who was found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, that lingers in the mind long after you close the book. Krakauer is sympathetic to the spirit that led McCandless to ditch his car, burn the money in his wallet, and set out for life off the grid. In a rousing section, he recalls his own [youthful] climbing adventure in Alaska, on a stark and wondrous peak called the Devils Thumb, which was both exhilarating and nearly fatal. Yet much like Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, this is a story that draws sharp lines between adventure and madness.
Window to: Alaska.
Roughly 20 years after he set the Joads off to California in their jalopy, Steinbeck took to the American roads himself, in a pickup truck he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. Since human companionship can "disturb the ecological complex of an area," his French poodle Charley stood in as his Sancho Panza. Over the course of more than 10,000 miles, the great American moralist took one final survey of his country: "I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here."
Window to: the U.S.
A corollary to the roaming spirit is the desire to get to know one place supremely well. Abbey worked two seasons in the mid-fifties as a wry, tourist-phobic ranger at Arches National Park in eastern Utah, several years before the roads were paved and the hulking RVs arrived. Abbey is a gruff, no-nonsense environmentalist and a poet of the rocks, which he sees in every light, including gorgeous visions of dusk: "The sun is touching the fretted tablelands on the west. It seems to bulge a little, to expand for a moment, and then it drops—abruptly—over the edge. I listen for a long time."
Window to: Utah's red-rock country.
The novelist Carey and his 12-year-old son travel to Japan in search of manga and anime culture, which the son adores and the father can't quite understand. The trip doesn't bring about much enlightenment about the country—a fine writer, Carey admits to being a terrible reporter—but that's most of the fun, a reminder that even in a global age, we can still meet with impenetrable and bewildering things.
Window to: Japan.