Have you ever sat on a bus, a boat, a train, or an airplane and read a book?
You probably have, as reading and travel have gone hand in hand for centuries. While your physical body is carried along by your chosen mode of transportation, reading can take your mind on an inner journey, a journey through your imagination. More than any other visual medium the act of reading can take you to new places; literally and figuratively.
The books below represent a selection of novels that sparked our imagination so profoundly that we actually stopped talking about wanting to travel, stopped hoping for the day we WOULD travel, and decided to just get on with it.
Essentially, these are the books that inspired us to travel the world.
Randi’s Favorite Travel Books
I adore each of these five books. They not only inspired me to travel but also inspired me to fully and unapologetically embrace who I am, listen to myself, and follow the inner voice that had been telling me I wasn’t living the life I should be living.
Each book has strong, non-conformist leads that I felt a connection with, and was influenced by in some way. As I read about China, South America, Australia, Europe, and the Pacific Coast of the United States, my desire to travel grew stronger and stronger, eventually leading me down a path that would change my life forever.
Wild Swans, Jung Chang
Wild Swans is based on the fascinating and often heartbreaking tale of three generations of Chinese women. The author, Jung Chang, recounts the lives of her grandmother, who was sold by her father to a warlord to be one of his concubines, her mother who was a member of the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong’s Red Army, and her own life growing up during the The Cultural Revolution. Each woman faced oppression and injustices imposed upon them by their country and culture including body mutilation, torture, slavery, brainwashing, and forced labor among other horrors. Each engaging, moving, and eye opening account provides a window into life in China and the country’s history through the eyes of women who endured more than their fair share of hardships.
Not surprisingly, given the content, Chang’s book has been banned in China since it’s publication in 1991. In fact, the author, who lives in the UK, is rarely allowed to enter China and if she is, is only allowed to visit with and speak to family members.
When I traveled to China the first time, I knew very little about the country’s history and culture. I found it to be a strange and beautiful place that felt chaotic, unfamiliar, and culturally unlike any other place I had visited previously.
A few weeks after I left China I read Wild Swans and was consumed by the lives of these three women, their culture, and the history of their country. When I returned to China a few months later I saw it a different light, not critically as you might expect, but rather with some shred of understanding and awareness. It made me feel a certain familiarity with the people and their recent history.
Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents, Elisabeth Eaves
Wanderlust is a book for every female misfit with a desire to travel. Elisabeth Eaves’ story is a brutally honest and open account of her travels over the span of 15 years, 5 continents, and a number of lovers.
Refusing to conform to the strictures placed on women in Western societies, Elisabeth embraces her love of exploration as she hops from country to country, continent to continent, and lover to lover in search of herself and a life she can feel satisfied with.
I connected with Elisabeth’s spirit when I read the book but her travels were very different from the ones I had experienced at the time. There were no expensive hotels, no two week vacations, no private cars from the airport. She quit her life, left all security behind and embarked on a journey into the unknown.
I read Wanderlust during a time that I felt completely lost and frustrated. I had the nagging feeling that there was something more to life than a daily routine and the struggle to exist in a system that made me unhappy. This book helped me to realize that it was possible to pursue an unconventional lifestyle, listen to my “heart”, and consider the possibility of long term travel.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, who set off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone at the age of 26. Strayed knew absolutely nothing about hiking or what she would encounter on the trail but vowed to complete it in its entirety regardless. Her 94 day hike from California to Oregon was a journey of self discovery through the solitude she experienced with nature and her thoughts as her only companions.
What I loved about this book was the fact that Strayed was completely lost and living a toxic life that would have eventually led to her demise. Rather than submitting, she took her future into her own hands and set out on a journey that many would call foolish. She made plenty of mistakes along the way but because she believed in herself and her mission she found herself along the way. She inspired me to have faith in myself and the things I wanted to accomplish.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, Ernesto Che Guevara
A person doesn’t become one of the most important revolutionary figures in history by accident. There is always a story, a journey, a reason why someone like Che Guevara was who he was and accomplished what he accomplished. The Motorcycle Diaries is a glimpse into the life of Ernesto Guevara before he became “Che”.
This book is based on the memoirs of Guevara as a young medical student as he traveled throughout South America with a friend. Along the way he witnesses the hardships and struggles of poor and exploited people in the countries he visits and began to ponder a different route in life.
I was drawn to the stories about his interactions and reactions to the people he met along the way and his internal struggle to determine his purpose in life. Reading about these human experiences through travel and how he was changed because of them left me with an even greater longing to set off and explore the world we live in and meet people from all cultures, geographies, and and economic backgrounds. To change because of them and to also try to make a difference in their lives if possible.
The Aimée Leduc Series, Cara Black
French cinema is what initially caused me to become enamored with Paris and end up visiting the city five times in the last 5 year. The Aimée Leduc Series provided me with a way to explore “The City of Lights” when traveling to France’s capital wasn’t possible.
The books centers around a young and independent french woman named Aimée Leduc who finds herself investigating murder mystery after murder mystery in many of Paris’ most well known neighborhoods. Her insatiable curiosity and need to discover the truth about these crimes lead her through the streets of Paris where she encounters odd characters in typically unknown areas and establishments in the city to discover revelations about the murders as well as her own family tragedies and mysteries.
I read these books when I lived in London and longed to escape what I felt was a dreary city lacking in interesting, eclectic, and diverse places and personalities. They allowed me to explore Paris through the eyes of a local in a way I could never do during my all too brief trips there.
Michael’s Favorite Travel Books
I will always and forever be grateful to my parents for instilling within me a passion for the written word. From as early as I can remember I was reading in one form or another. Books allowed me to explore new people, new places, new concepts, and ideas. I loved getting wrapped up in a book, transported to the landscape of the author’s design.
Some of the books below might be considered odd choices for a travel inspiration article, but each and every one of them served to fuel my wanderlust, and lent me courage to set out to explore the world.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
The quintessential American classic about hitting the road was supremely important in providing me with some of the courage I was looking for to pursue my dream of traveling. Kerouac’s dynamic style and frantically frenetic pace conveys a tantalizing sense of excitement, which certainly served to fan the flames of my suppressed wanderlust.
Most of the book takes place in the United States and depicts cross country jaunts in pursuit of music, love, and life. However, the most impactful portion of Kerouac’s novel, for me, occurs in Mexico. The two American protagonists decide to drive to Mexico City, and are exposed to an entirely new world during their journey. They marvel in exuberance at the many differences in this totally unfamiliar land they find themselves traveling through. As a reader I was amazed how foreign the country seemed to them considering it’s the next door neighbor to the USA. I realized, at that moment, that I didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to end up somewhere “exotic”.
If you haven’t read this book yet, you must. Period.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Known for his wonderful and wondrous travelogues Bryson appears on almost every list of “Travel Inspiration” novels out there. A Short History of Nearly Everything is certainly not the Bryson book many would pick as their inspiration to travel. However, this book does depict a journey, the journey of man emerging from the dark ages of his own ignorance, traveling through the horrifying tunnels of accumulating knowledge, and realizing…well, that he knows next to nothing.
Bryson expertly traces and charts the course of mankind’s evolution of scientific theory, and does an absolutely phenomenal job of depicting how small humans really are, and how brief our lifespans end up being when compared to the universe’s machinations on a cosmic scale.
These were not new concepts to me at the time of reading this book, but no other author I have ever read did a better job of lighting a fire under my ass by showing me exactly how little time we have on this planet. Once I was done reading this book I knew that I was in danger of wasting away my prime years of life. I had to hit the road, and see the world…before it was too late. I just had to figure out how…
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin’s epic and exceptional fantasy series has gained worldwide acclaim since its conversion into the sub-par (but we won’t get into that here and now out of fear that this will turn into a huge rant) HBO mega-hit, A Game of Thrones. Long before Dany Targaryen and Jon Snow were brought to life in the television show, they were prancing around my imagination as I devoured these books time and time again. I think I’ve read them at least thrice each at this point.
Yes, I’m a geek like that.
So what is it about this series, which is filled with intrigue, betrayal, wheels within wheels of plots and schemes, dragons, knights, and battles that inspired me to travel?
One of the many talents that George Martin possesses as a writer is the ability to turn a fictional landscape into something that feels real, something that comes to life inside the unknown depths of your imagination. His descriptions of the many journeys his characters undertake, whether it’s John Snow ranging beyond the wall, Tyrion floating down the Rhoyne River, or Dany traveling across the Great Grass Sea, are filled with wonder. There is a tangible sense of exploration, for both the characters and the reader. While the places in these books are the construct of GRRM’s prodigious imagination, the portrayal of the journey feels very real.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The tale of a family forced to uproot their lives and become migrant workers due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Dust Bowl storms might be seen as another head scratching choice for travel inspiration.
True, most of the book focus on the characters and their interpersonal dramas rather than their journey. However, there is a deal of time spent on describing the family’s trek from Oklahoma to California as a group. The passing terrain is a tertiary (but powerful) character in the novel, and the family’s adventures, dramas, discoveries, heartbreaks, loss, and growth all play out against the striking middle American landscape.
I read this as a very young teenager and was especially enamored with the travelogue portions of the prose. The journey of the family, the hardships they faced in hopes of finding a better life beyond the horizon, and the descriptions of the land itself struck a chord of wanderlust that reverberates to this very day. Steinbeck loved writing lavish verses extolling the beauty of California and the Salinas valley, and this book made me want to trace the path of these characters, and see what they saw.
A Lonely Planet Guide to Peru
These days I have all but stopped reading guide books. They are costly, cumbersome, and not as easy to search as Google is. In a way, travel guide books are a fossil, going the way of newspapers. Which is a little sad, to be honest. When I first started traveling I took great joy in acquiring a new guidebook, it signified the start of a planning session for a new adventure to a new part of the world.
The very first guidebook I owned was a Lonely Planet Guide to Peru. I borrowed it from a friend on a whim one day, back before travel wasn’t much of an option for me, and kept it in the bathroom (I know, TMI) as reading material. And there it stayed for a year or so, teasing me with the possibilities of venturing out into the world, and exploring places I had only read about and stared at pictures of. Peru was a totally abstract concept in my mind until this book, and it just happened to be the first country I visited when I finally decided to buy a ticket, quit my job, and journey down to South America for two months. It seems a long time ago now, as in the 5 years that have followed from that fateful day I have become a bit of a global nomad. And while I no longer spend my money on these sort of books, I will never forget what this particular travel guide did for me.