Long before travel blogs existed, outstanding writers told tales of faraway places for the general populace who could not afford travel on their own. These books continue to inspire travelers to seek new places and I am no exception. Growing up, I always perused the travel section of the local bookstore for travelogues to inspire me.
These days, I primarily read on my iPad Mini using the Kindle app. I know many of you prefer the feel of a paper book, but for traveling, carrying that many books can be onerous. We also make good use of the site Bookbub.com to get numerous free and marked-down books.
These are some of my favorite all time travel books or books that inspired me to travel. I hope you find a few to add to your own library and inspire your wanderlust.
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Following the Equator
by Mark Twain
I always like to start a list of suggested travel books with the classic travelogue Following the Equator by Mark Twain. It was one of the first travel books I read back in college. It highlights travel to India and the South Pacific. While not Twain’s only travelogue, as a young man, I thoroughly enjoyed Twain’s style and I eagerly consumed the tails of the exotic South Pacific and India. I am still hankering to visit Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and India.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.Mark Twain
Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman
If there is only one book of American poetry you should own as an American traveler, it is Leaves of Grass. While there many great volumes of American poetry, Whitman’s seminal work contains one of the greatest travel poems ever written: “Song of the Open Road.”
Click here to read my take on “Song of the Open Road.”
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.Walt Whitman
What more could you ask for in terms of inspiration at the start of a great journey? This poem has not only inspired me in my travels but also in how I teach my American Literature classes. Whitman’s easy, relatable style makes for a great read and a great companion on the road.
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
by Norman Maclean
Between the movie and this excellent novel, there is plenty of inspiration in A River Runs Through It to visit Montana. Norman Maclean’s three stories tell the story of Maclean’s life and family, as well as his experiences in the woods of Montana.
Indeed, it was Maclean’s text which inspired me to go on my first road trip in college. We traveled to Montana, specifically to Glacier National Park. In all, I spent 17 days on the road and it opened my eyes to the wonder of the American West. Along the way, I fell in love with Montana and Wyoming, a love that continues today.
At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. You can love completely without complete understanding.Norman Maclean
By Larry McMurtry
My father always told me there are two kinds of Texans: those who have read Lonesome Dove and those who would read Lonesome Dove. This epic Western tells the fictional tale of two former rangers leading a cattle drive to Montana. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel paints a vivid picture of the land from the Rio Grande all the way to Montana. The Emmy Award-winning miniseries is truly a work of art as well.
Lonesome Dove grabs hold of you with brilliant characters faced with a Homeric journey disguised as a cattle drive. This novel inspired the teenager in me an unabiding love of Texas and a desire to see Montana someday.
The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew.Larry McMurtry
Don’t Stop the Carnival
by Herman Wouk
My other love in my college days was the Caribbean. Like many, I fantasized about running off to the Islands to live a simple life in the sun. Herman Wouk’s seminal text, Don’t Stop the Carnival, on an American expatriate owning a hotel in the islands, gave my dream a quick dash of reality. Still, it is a must-read for anyone who spends time in the Caribbean.
The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he is not much inclined to believe in it. This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun.Herman Wouk
A Walk in the Woods
By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson’s botched attempt to through-hike the Appalachian Trail makes for one of the most poignant and funny tales I have ever read. Bryson comes from a journalistic tradition but still manages to inject A Walk in the Woods with absolute levity and humor. Still, the book educated me, someone, who spent every summer in the Appalachians, about the mountains in ways I did not think possible.
That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.Bill Bryson
By Cheryl Strayed
A perfect companion and foil for A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s emotional hike on the Pacific Crest Trail could not be a more different text. Strayed’s Wild tells the story of the healing found in a journey. While Bryson’s affable narrative is like listening to a rambling friend on a hike, Strayed’s story is as much a journey into her soul as a trek through parts of the PCT. While the movie is fantastic, the book is a piece of art.
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.Cheryl Strayed
Under the Tuscan Sun
By Frances Mayes
The movie with Diane Lane inspired me long ago to visit Italy. When we went in 2013, I read Under the Tuscan Sun before visiting Cortona. While the movie shares some elements of the book, it is a very different story. Frances Mayes’ work is a love note told through her experiences and her recipes. Like Mayes, we, too, fell in love with Cortona and one of her dining recommendations, Dardano’s, was fantastic.
Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.Frances Mayes
If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name
By Heather Lende
Heather Lende’s book on living in a small town in coastal Alaska captured my imagination. She, herself, was seduced by the town after visiting on her honeymoon. It inspired our own honeymoon to Alaska. The beauty and harshness of the land are every bit as amazing in person as it is in her account.
We went to Haines on a cruise in 2018 and it is easy to see why she fell in love with the small town and the surrounding wilderness.
Only adults weep with joy. Children don’t. They haven’t learned how rare moments of true happiness are.Heather Lende
The World’s Most Dangerous Places
By Robert Young Pelton
This is Robert Young Pelton’s guide to traveling the world’s not so friendly places. A common sense guide by a journalist who has literally been there and done that all over the world, this text has not been updated in 15 or so years. While the pertinent information on individual countries is out of date, the tips and guidance he offers on dealing with these kinds of places are outstanding and are told with Pelton’s outstanding sense of humor.
There is a point when smarmy travel-safety advice and brutal reality collide, like taking your malaria pill faithfully while walking through a minefield or using a condom when boffing a rebel commander’s ‘socio.’Robert Young Pelton
This collection of short stories from Men’s Journal includes some of the seminal writers of the time. Men’s Journal has long been a source of inspiration for my travels and this collects the best works of 10 years of the publication. One of my favorites, P.J. O’Rourke’s ‘Weird Karma” is one of the best narratives of a road trip I have ever read.
The first time I looked out the windshield at this melee, I thought, India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people? They can’t.P.J. O’Rourke
Dear Bob and Sue
by Matt and Karen Smith
Dear Bob and Sue is the quirky tale of one couple’s quest to visit all of the US National Parks. They actually wrote this as a set of e-mails to their friends Bob and Sue. What makes this so compelling is the missteps the couple encounters along the way.
For us, it is sage advice on visiting some of the least talked about National Parks sites, like the National Park of American Samoa. Plus, it is really funny. Both of us often to break out into laughter at the antics of this couple which are so like our own interactions.
‘I hope it isn’t a Saskatchewan.’ I think she meant Sasquatch, but even so, I assured her there were no large Canadian provinces lurking in the woods.Matt Smith
I hope you enjoyed this trip through a small part of my library. I have always said you can judge a lot about a person by the books on their shelf. While this list is by no means exhaustive of good travel books I have read, these are the books that have inspired me the most. I hope you find inspiration as well.