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Books of the Marvels of the World – My Top 21 Best Travel Books of All Time (11-16)

What is great travel literature for me? I explained that here in 1-5, so lets jump right in.

11. Riding the Iron Rooster. Paul Theroux

I’ve always thought that after five minutes with Theroux I’d want to sock him in the face.  I mean, I totally respect the guy for his intelligence and amazing travels but he is such a smug punk I probably couldn’t stand him.  So, all that said….while not a great writer his books are fabulous. This one in particular still stands out.  Despite the fact that it is almost 25 years old it is a great insight into modern China. For slightly more than a year Theroux travelled through China from the tropical south to the desert north and west in an attempt to understand how it was emerging from cultural change. While Theroux’s prejudicial eye can be offensive at time, he doesn’t miss and thing – and he is honest. A worthy virtue.

12. In Patagonia. Bruce Chatwin

For me, this is arguably the most beautiful book ever written. I’ve read it a dozen times and feel like I still don’t quite “get it”. Chatwin is the unsurpassed stylist of travel writing.  His sentences are tight and beautifully composed, poetic in nature. Published in 1977, the book chronicles (kind of) Chatwin’s romp through Patagonia. He steps out of the typical academic conventions of travel literature and while is eye for historical detail (not to the captivating way it is related) is astounding you often wonder…is this for real?  The journey seems captivated by the ether. This is a book that transcends “plot” and touches on the real essence of travel.

13. The Songlines. Bruce Chatwin

Another incredible Chatwin read. Again, the writing style is stunningly beautiful. This time Chatwin goes to the heart of Australia seeking to understand his own restless nature – with which he burdens all humanity. Part essay, part travelogue and all dubious anthropology and rhetorical circles. The “Bruce” of the book is clearly not Bruce Chatwin the writer. “Bruce” is a clumsy westerner with imperialistic notions trying to understand the blacks. It’s a fascinating literary tool. Through Bruce’s stumbles into aboriginal culture the reader can access an honest essence of “the songlines”. This is a rambling exploration of landscape, transhumance and the origin of violence in humans. Brilliant.

14. Into the Wild. Jon Krakauer

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When this book first came out, my father gave me a copy.  He said “this guy reminds me of you”.  I took it as an insult because I knew my father did not like my adventure/travelling/writing ways.  So I tossed the book in the corner. A year later, my brother said “It may not be the insult you think”.  Krakauer documents the short life and untimely death of a brilliant young man named Chris McCandless. A young traveler seeking himself through wilderness.  Much as I did. The reason McCandless is famous is that he didn’t make it.  A lost but admirable young man, Krakauer does his journey and ultimate failure justice. By the way…the movie Sean Penn made of this book is incredible as is the Eddie Vedder soundtrack.  Prepare for an emotional stunner.

15. Travels with Herodotus. Ryszard Kapuściński

This 2004 book mixes the great Ryszard Kapuściński’s travels as a Polish newspaper correspondant in the 1950s, 60s and 70s with excerpts from The Histories by Herodotus. Kapuściński gave us many great books but what is so charming about his memoir is how a young man is “thrown” out into the strange wide world and forced to adapt.  Forced?  ‘Chose’ more likely and that is what makes great travelers great. What Kapuściński wanted to show us, I think, is that the world has actually changed little in 3000 years.  Or maybe that the world has been changed but Humans have failed to change themselves. A warning.  This is not the book for the passive reader.  Much as with with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (while lacking the curlicues that makes Proust hard to read) you can’t cruise this one or you’ll miss the point.

16. Roughing It. Mark Twain

Well, it’s Mark Twain.  Sarcastic, irreverent and “fork-toungued”, this take on the USA of 125+ years ago is insightful and fun and lends what I find to be an honest account of the Euro-American invasion of another people’s land at the time of Twain’s journey’s  Americans seems both heroic and yet cruel and ridiculous. Ironically, the truth is in the stretching of facts. In my opinion, the best two parts are the stage to Nevada and then the meeting with the Mormon leaders.  Twain is a sly SOB. The part about throwing empty whiskey bottles at whales on the boat to Hawaii is…telling. And yet the Hawaiian section of the book is hardly worth reading.  Inserted at the behest of his publisher, the section does not have the same energy as the wild west that pulls Twain in. Fun book.

We’ll round it up next week!

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