Travel Books That Will Take You Far

As the days get shorter and colder, vicarious adventure starts looking better than the real thing. Here, chosen in part to reflect the range of the planet's ecosystems, are half-a-dozen great books for the armchair explorer:

1. Arabian Sands (1959), by Wilfred Thesiger. From 1945-50, Thesiger spent as much time as he could in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, where he rode camels, passed himself off as a half-witted slave to avoid being executed as an infidel, and enjoyed intense "comradeship in a hostile world" with the Bedouin. Then he came home and wrote a masterpiece about a ridiculously tough setting for humans to live in, and the ways in which they managed to do so.

2. Shackleton (1986), by Roland Huntford. This is the biography that started all the fuss about the Antarctic explorer who put the safety of his crew ahead of his polar ambitions -- a fuss that has led to tomes with titles like "Managing Your Company the Shackleton Way." Huntford also wrote a muck-raking study of Scott and Amundsen, but Shackleton is an out-and-out tribute to a humane leader.

3. The Snow Leopard (1978), by Peter Matthiessen. Along with a special affection for this book (the first one I ever reviewed professionally), I like its unorthodox spirituality. While trekking in the Himalayas in search of the elusive cat, the author feels at one with creation: "I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it there is a ringing that we share."

4. The White Nile (1960), by Alan Moorehead. The Australian journalist carried on a love affair with Africa, and this beautifully written work is one of the products. Its "characters" include the mercurial polymath Sir Richard Burton, along with lions, hippopotami and the Nile itself, which seemed to hide its own source like a coveted treasure.

5. Into the Heart of Borneo (1984), by Redmond O'Hanlon. Quite simply, the funniest travel book ever written.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Christian Pelusi |  November 15, 2007; 7:02 AM ET Dennis Drabelle , Nonfiction
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For another hilarious travel book, check out "The Sex Lives of Cannibals."

Posted by: Michael T. | November 15, 2007 10:39 AM

That does sound pretty amusing, all right!

Posted by: drabelle | November 16, 2007 2:21 PM

So interesting that you mention no books by Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux. Do those guys just not hold up or what?
And speaking of guys: Do men have a pretty exclusive monopoloy on this craft?
Just curious.

Posted by: Marcy | November 17, 2007 4:53 PM

The horror of a travel book list without Ryszard Kapuscinski! The greatest 20th century travel writer.

Just read how he describes a bout with malaria in Shadow of the Sun:

"What can bring relief when you have a malaria attack? The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you. This thing you are being covered with must crush you with its weight, squeeze you, flatten you. You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.

I once had a powerful malaria attack in a poor village, where there weren't any heavy coverings. The villagers placed the lid of some kind of wooden chest on top of me and then patiently sat on it, waiting for the worst tremors to pass."

Posted by: Josh | November 18, 2007 12:24 PM

I couldn't agree more about Kapuscinski! His Travels With Herodotus is a miracle.
But here's someone else who should be mentioned on any complete list of the best travel writers: the great Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom. Like Kapuscinski he is extraordinarily versatile. Try his Roads to Santiago. Or even better, Nomad's Hotel.

Posted by: Marcy | November 18, 2007 3:12 PM

Rosa King's "Tempest over Mexico" (1935). A bit sentimental perhaps, yet reading about her life, the revolution, and her little hotel - the Bella Vista in Cuernavaca - still inspires me as a twenty-first century woman.

Posted by: lbe | November 18, 2007 9:05 PM

I didn't mean for my list to be definitive, or the absolute best of all time, or anything like that, so I'm happy to hear from readers with their own choices to advance. As for the female "problem," that's an interesting one. The books I've chosen tend to date from or be about a bygone era when in general women didn't mount expeditions and write about them. A list of recent books, say from the last 20 years or so, would look quite different.

Posted by: drabelle | November 19, 2007 1:22 PM

I see that I negleced to reply to the question of why Raban, Theroux, and Chatwin aren't on the list. They certainly could have been, but I was told to limit the list. I especially admire Raban's Old Glory and the one on Arabia. Theroux I find a bit crabby, though--sometimes you wonder if he should have just stayed home rather than have to put up with all the foreign fools he suffers so ungladly.

Posted by: drabelle | November 20, 2007 1:53 PM

Cornielia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough wrote an hilarious account of their travels in Europe in the '20s as young grads of Bryn Mawr when "nice Girls" didn't travel unescorted. I read it in the '60s and still laughed. I'm sure it's still available and it's interesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by: Balti | December 7, 2007 12:24 PM

My personal vote for funniest travel writer is Bill Bryson - any one of his books: "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" about his US travels and "In a Sunburned Country about Austrailia and "A Walk in the Woods" about the Appalachian Trail (and several more!) are all tons of fun.

Posted by: SeaTac | December 13, 2007 1:32 PM

Paul Theroux for me is like having a best friend. Pick up one of his books and it's like the conversation never ended. It happened again on Dark Star Safari. Enough said.

Posted by: Ben Farbman | December 18, 2007 11:55 PM

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