The Best Books I’ve Read During my Travels, Part 1

travel books

best books i've read on my travelsThe thirsty demand for book recommendations is part-and-parcel of long term travel. While iPods and laptops are great time-wasters on an endless bus journey, nothing satisfies like the pages of a good book. When I travel, I try and limit my reading to non-fiction. After all, to travel for travel itself is so fundamentally indulgent that the least I can do is try and learn as I go! Most of the books I buy or trade are therefore non-fiction, but I’ve been handed some great fiction to read during my journey and have included those as well. In addition, I’ve included some of my favorites from home at the end of the list.

I will surely update this list at the end of my trip, but these are the books that have stood out during the last 15 months.


The best travel books I’ve read while on the move:

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children by John Wood. If you enjoyed Three Cups of Tea, read Wood’s account of his metamorphosis from corporate executive at Microsoft to philanthropist extraordinaire. While Mortensen’s personality often served as a deterrent to the success of his endeavours (he was notably disorganized and often forgot about the commitments he made to speak to a crowd), Wood’s business acumen and the many skills he developed at Microsoft enabled his organization Room to Read to become extremely successful. Room to Read is now building schools, bilingual libraries and providing scholarships in 9 countries, and their innovative approach to fund-raising and development (local R2R chapters in Europe, North America and Australia (among other countries) raise a considerable amount of the funds; communities receiving schools or libraries must co-invest portions of the materials or labour in order to ensure a vested interest in the project) has translated into a lot of happy children and community pride. For me, the idea that the scholarships for girls included not only the books and cost of schooling, but school uniforms, schools and bookbags was particularly touching; it is rare that an organization’s attention to detail is so thorough and effective.

The Devil’s Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink by Taras Grescoe. Disregarding the introduction, which I thought detracted from the overall book, The Devil’s Picnic is an informative, highly entertaining read. Travel with Grescoe as he criss-crosses the globe in search of forbidden foods and drink, and laugh with him as he tries his hand at them upon arrival. With a colourful history of each “devil’s dish”, from raw-milk cheeses in France to mate de coca in Bolivia to moonshine in Norway, it’s a really fun read. Of course, the fact that Grescoe is from my hometown of Montreal doesn’t hurt either!

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. I might not like the taste of cod, but after reading this book, I have a newfound appreciation for its world-changing role. Beginning with the assertion that without salted cod to sustain them, explorers would have never made it to North America, Cod is a sprawling, educational read about European history, religion and discovery and the destruction of the cod population. I will never look at fish the same way again.

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams by Tahir Shah. With one foot in the East and the other in the West, Shah’s memoir about his new home in Morocco, Dar Khalifa, and subsequent search for the teaching stories that provide a foundation of learning in the East is a captivating read. If you liked Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, this book will appeal to you immensely. I enjoyed every word.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. A disturbing book about the history of Mormonism in America and the fundamentalists’ (such as FLDS) subsequent detachment from mainstream Mormon beliefs. Includes fairly graphic accounts of sexual and physical abuse and incest, which Krakauer attributes to fundamentalists’ practices of polygamy and fairly offputting interpretations of “God’s word”. The most fascinating part of the book comes at the end: the church published a scathing critique and rebuttal to the first edition of the book, and Krakauer deconstructs and refutes their criticism, paragraph by paragraph.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (see below) before I left, I grabbed In Defense of Food, its sequel, when I saw it in Indonesia. Tackling the seemingly simple question of what we ought to eat, Pollan takes us through the history of nutritionism in America and the consequential influx of “Western diseases”, as well as the dominance of the processed food industry. A convincing treatise about what is wrong with the way we eat in North America and, increasingly, in the rest of the world.

Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young & Thomas McFadden. Travel through Bolivia and you will absolutely see at least a dozen people furiously turning the pages of Marching Powder. Absorbing and shocking, the book chronicles the life of Thomas McFadden, a British citizen who was imprisoned for cocaine trafficking and the strange prison that houses him in La Paz. Rusty Young, a law graduate and backpacker who is drawn to McFadden’s story, becomes more embroiled in his life -and Young eventually finds himself representing McFadden in his bid for parole and in recounting the story of his life. The book is a great read outside of Bolivia, but once you’ve travelling there witnessed the chaos of La Paz and the clash of people and cultures in its tangled streets, you won’t be able to put it down.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Great book about the chaos and controversy caused by a little thing we call the number zero. If you hate math, it’s still worth a read – just ignore all the graphs and equations!

Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine by A. Zee. For those of you (like me) who are obsessed with the sheer variety in the many types of Chinese cuisine, this is your book. By linking the history of Chinese food with the Chinese character radicals that you find on a menu, the book provides an infinite amount of useful and playful anecdotes about what it means to eat in China. Food is central to China – after all, there are 300 radicals for the one English word “broil” – and Swallowing Clouds is a perfect introduction to the culture and language that predates and surrounds it.

Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts. People either love Shantaram, or they love the first half of the book and then hate the author’s arrogance thereafter. Regardless of what you think about Roberts and/or his personality flaw, the man can seriously write. Engaging, thought-provoking and at times seriously depressing, Shantaram kept me entertained during rainy evenings and a long-haul flight. I started the book in Australia and, after reading the first paragraph, emailed it to my brother with a note that said “Read it”. Having finished the book somewhere between Bali and Sumbawa, I can see how some readers start to resent Roberts’ style towards the end. Still, it is worth pushing through until the last page; the lyrical, captivating prose is reason enough, with most sentences worthy of recopying and filing away for future inspiration. The “based on true events” story of a man’s daring escape from Australian prison and resultant flight to the heart of Bombay’s underworld, Shantaram is at times meditative, at times philosophical and oftentimes achingly sad. I stand by my initial reaction: read it.

Papillon (P.S.) by Henri Charriere. Much like Shantaram, Papillon details Charriere’s decision to escape from prison instead of serving time for a crime that he (unlike Roberts) did not commit – and there’s no false modesty here either. Nonetheless, Papillon was a wondrous read, in part because of where it took place (the penal colonies of French Guyana) and the stubborn spirit of Charriere, who kept getting caught on the run and yet still tried to escape prison each time he was reincarcerated. Published in 1968, I’ve seen several travellers reading it during the course of this trip.

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart – A page-turning, fascinating read about Stewart’s gutsy (and foolhardy) trek through a post-9/11 Afghanistan in the footsteps of King Babur of Kabul.

Some Favorites I Read Before I Left:

These are the books that I keep on the top of my bookshelf, that I have read and re-read.

Cloud Atlas: A Novel and Ghostwritten by David Mitchell – David Mitchell is hands down my favorite fiction writer, and the complex, tangentially-related tapestry of stories in Cloud Atlas and otherworldly universe he creates in Ghostwritten are two of his best.

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan. Whereas Cod changed the way I see fish, Rats seared its lessons into my brain without remorse. The book details Sullivan’s patient, stalkeresque fascination with rats and how they live and breathe in the City that Never Sleeps (he sits on a stool in Eden Alley nightly to observe them after dark) and left me with the creepy-crawlies. I’ve never been afraid of them, but I now know such goodies as if you see one rat foraging during the day, there are at least 100 more underground, right beneath your feet. Or that when the Twin Towers fell, they tumbled inward on all the food concourses below, meaning that the rats thereunder did what rats do – procreated and gorged themselves and procreated. And were it not for NYC’s most able City Exterminators baiting most of lower Manhattan with poison, there would have been a serious epidemic post-9/11 as a result. For the many, many random facts about the rodents most people abhor, this book is a must-read.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. A profound and melancholy book about Ka, a poet from Istanbul who returns to Turkey after a decade of exile in Germany, Snow – like many of Pamuk’s novels – treads the tightrope between East and West in his native country with often disastrous, deadly consequences. Also worth reading My Name Is Red.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Noted locavore Pollan’s book about the national eating disorder of Americans – that they cannot stop obsessing about food. The North American tendency to divorce what we eat from where it came means that we pretend it originated in perfect supermarket packaging. Pollan dispenses with any sterile leanings immediately and tries to show his readers what happens to their food before it ends up on their plate. A persuasive indictment about the State of Food in North America.

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) by David Foster Wallace. In typically idiosyncratic and wonderful Wallace-esque style, Everything and More walks you through the history how what we conceive of “infinity” came to be. With quirky, fun touches like footnotes entitled “IYI” (standing for “if you’re interested” – which of course you are), pages of equations and the use of the lemniscate instead of the word “infinity” to highlight that wrapping your head around the concept of infinity necessarily requires you to step outside of customary mathematics, it was a complicated but worthwhile read. As Wallace points out, infinity flies in the face of traditional mathematical thought in that it is an enthusiastically abstract concept. I had hoped Wallace would publish more books with a science bent, but unfortunately Wallace committed suicide in September of 2008.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. This is not a new book. Published in 1979, it was rereleased in 1999 and continues to draw people in with its dynamic exploration of mathematics, artificial intelligence, art and creative thought. As the review notes, a lot has changed since 1979. And yet, GEB remains both relevant and interesting – as evidenced by its rerelease. Tackling commonalities within the lives of Godel, Escher and Bach, the book examines the concepts of strange and infinite loops, symmetry and the power of the human brain, among many others. Interspersed within the mathematical equations, the puzzles and the prose are fictional dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise.

The Belgariad & The Mallorean by David & Leigh Eddings. This epic, chronically underrated fantasy series comprise the books that got me into books. My mother would find me crouched under the covers at 3am when I was in high school, furiously trying to finish the latest volume in the series (yes, I was a geek). These books are un-put-downable and annoyingly delicious; everyone who reads them stops socializing until the series is done. Everyone in my family has read them. To those of you with kids, I cannot recommend these books enough. Read The Belgariad (5 books) first, then The Mallorean (5 books) and then the two companion tomes (Polgara the Sorceress and Belgarath the Sorcerer). And then, when you are done, read The Rivan Codex, the Eddings’ preliminary notes that formed the basis of the series. Eddings passed away in June 2009.


22 thoughts on “The Best Books I’ve Read During my Travels, Part 1”

  1. Finally, I've been trying to get a new book list from you for ages. I loved Raging Bulls and Easy Riders (thank you), but somehow lost the book on one of my flights and still had about 50 pages to finish. I guess I'll need to pick up another copy.

  2. Thanks for all the suggestions Jodie!
    I haven't read most of them (although I am a bookworm too) but I'll keep an eye on this list ;)

    Oh and, (loved the "I'm a geek" again) Eddings is on my next list of Fantasy books after I finish the Discworld series which I am currently reading haha.

  3. I first read "Omnivore's Dilemma" in an environmental lit class in college and immediately picked up "In Defense of Food."

    His writing style is incredibly honest and definitely eye-opening to the way Americans think about food. Having since traveled and been contemplating a post on food in Southeast Asia, I've been thinking about his books a lot.

    Also, I've been trying to find "Three Cups of Tea" EVERYWHERE to no avail. I'm a woman on a mission!

  4. great list. i have been meaning to read more non-fiction, so will definitely be adding some of your suggestions to the list.

    i agree with your view on shantaram too, despite some of the laborious chapters, it is a very good book.

    marching powder was also, as you said, an interesting read. especially if you have spent time in the fascinating chaos that is la paz.

  5. Good list.

    Although I have to take exception with Shantaram. Have never read anything as contrived as that. It comes across as a long-winded hybrid of Slumdog Millionaire and Mr. Nice (if that is even possible). I guess I'm in the hate camp on this one. :P

    Happy travels, and love your blog. Peace.


  6. Oh I’m a Jon Krakauer fan myself, especially his “Into Thin Air.” A couple of my favorites I’ve read while traveling include:

    “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston
    “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson
    “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson

    I like the non-fiction :)

  7. Some great books here – yay for David Eddings! I spent six months in high school reading the Belgariad etc.

    I’m also in the camp that couldn’t get in to Shantaram – but I’ve met so many people on my travels who have been willing to cart around such a doorstop of a book that I just might have to try to read it yet again if I can find a copy.

    One of the things I was looking forward to about travelling for an extended period is the freedom to read without feeling guilty about it! And I love the way the book I’m reading can capture my attention while travelling the way it can’t at home – because there, there are too many books to choose from!

  8. Paul: I’ve read all those books but had to be uber-selective and sadly I didn’t have room for them. I agree that they are great reads.

    Meg: I’m thrilled to hear you loved the Eddings’ too – most people have never heard of them and if there’s one author (or set of authors) that has affected my reading the most, it’s them. I used to get grounded for reading them with a flashlight under the covers, until my mother started reading herself and figured out that they were hopelessly addictive.

    Posting Part 2 of this list today – hopefully I’ve got some more for you to add to your reading list!


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  10. Oh some great books on here! I almost picked up Shantaram the other day but didn’t go for it. Some others on here I’ll definitely have to try and find.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

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  12. To weigh in on the Shantaram debate – I just finished it a few days ago and despite the author getting somewhat carried away with himself, his insights and his knowledge of adjectives that can be used to describe a member of the opposite sex, I loved the book overall. I don’t think I’ve been that engrossed in a novel – especially one that gets within striking distance of 1000 pages – in a very, very long time. I didn’t want it to end, and I’m now going to start re-reading it to pick up on all of the stuff I missed the first time round.

    It’s not necessarily an easy read, but it is totally worth sticking with. In my opinion, at least. :)

  13. I love this list! Will be adding some of these to my Goodreads “to-read” shelf very shortly. You have excellent taste in books… Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Adam, Diana: Glad you liked the suggestions!

    Dave: I agree that he’s quite self involved, but the way he strings words together is often quite beautiful. For all of the book’s faults, it still makes for a thought-provoking read, so long as you don’t get too caught up in the actual plot ;)

    Thanks Roxanne – I’m glad you’ve found books of interest on the list. I’d be curious for your suggestions too, so if you have any please do post them!

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