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.
Journalist Horwitz indulges a childhood obsession with the Civil War with a project that begins as a tour of preserved battlefields but evolves into a funny and massively insightful exploration of the contemporary American South. Horwitz takes to the field with a group of hard-core reenactors, gets to the bottom of the real story behind Gone with the Wind, and examines the legacy of the war and the civil-rights movement in Selma, Alabama.
Window to: North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama.
(1937 and 1960)
It's hard to read this memoir of life managing a coffee plantation in British East Africa (later Kenya) without hearing Meryl Streep's deep intonations or squirming at some of the dated, paternalistic descriptions of the native population. Yet Karen Blixen (who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen) held progressive racial views for her time, and turns a curious and honest eye to everything around her: the people, flora, and fauna of her beloved adopted home: "I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa."
Window to: Kenya and Denmark.
Matthiessen and the biologist George Schaller, along with a small company of sherpas and porters, travel into the Himalayas in search of exotic species, including the blue sheep known as the bharal and the elusive snow leopard (and, perhaps jokingly, the even more elusive yeti). Mirroring this quest is a spiritual one that combines Matthiessen's evolving Buddhism with his grief at the death of his wife. Will they spot a leopard? Does it even matter? This is a timeless celebration of the mystical qualities of nature: "The earth twitches, and the mountains shimmer, as if all molecules had been set free: the blue sky rings."
Window to: the Himalayas.
Theroux persuades us that one of the best ways to discover the culture of a country is by riding its trains. The author reached nearly every corner of Asia, and just reading the names of the notable trains he rode—the Direct-Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Mandalay Express, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, and the Trans-Siberian Express—is enough to summon visions of a kind of travel that even then was beginning to fade away.
Window to: Asia's fabled trains.
Chatwin, inspired by an ancient piece of skin from the extinct mylodon (a giant sloth) that he admired as a child in England, ventures to Patagonia. The book he brought back stretches the boundaries of the travelogue genre, blending reporting, myth, outright tall tales, science, history, and linguistics to form an idiosyncratic stew. While numerous inventions and errors of fact have been discovered in the text, precision here is less valuable than the totality of Chatwin's yarn, which finds room for extended musings about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Coleridge's Mariner, Shakespeare's Caliban, and the beauty of the place around him: "There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones."
Window to: Argentina and Chile.
Frazier takes us to a land of tough farming and hard living, an increasingly overlooked swath of America—running roughly from Montana to Texas—that most people only see from an airplane. Frazier always has an eye on history, but the most stirring encounters happen in the present, as when he meets a Sioux man named Le War Lance, who playfully threatens to scalp him and jeers at shoppers leaving the grocery store with bags full of such exoticisms as pasta: "He took my right wrist and pressed his thumb tightly against my pulse and then spoke a sentence. The sound of Sioux is soft and rippling, like something you might hear through a bead curtain."
Window to: the West