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Top Ten Travel Books Selected by Tim Leffel
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Top Ten Travel Books

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

Choosing my favorite Paul Theroux book is like picking my favorite place in the world: It’s impossible to settle on just one. But The Old Patagonian Express, which is about a train journey Theroux made from Boston to southern Argentina, is right up there at the top of my list. It was the first Theroux book I read, and having never read him before, I was particularly struck by the writing. Theroux has a wicked sense of humor. He brings so much wisdom and experience to his travels. I couldn’t put this one down.

The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer

Iyer chronicles a year he spent living in Kyoto, Japan, and the book unfolds like a novel. He settles into a monastery with a couple of good-hearted monks, meets a few ex-pats and then falls for Sachiko, a local married woman. Their relationship gives Iyer the perfect opportunity to explore differences between Japanese and American culture and values. That alone is fascinating. But for me the real highlight, as in all of Iyer’s travel writing, is the lyrical ever-thoughtful way he evokes his own sense of dislocation.

Road Fever by Tim Cahill

It’s no secret that Cahill’s adventure travel stories are hilarious. But most of his books are story collections. I like Road Fever because it’s a full-length narrative, so you have a chance to settle in for a couple of hundred pages on a single journey. In this case, it’s a gonzo road trip Cahill made with a professional adventure driver from the tip of South America to Alaska to break the world record. They did it, making the trip in less than 24 days, but that’s not giving anything away. The appeal here, as always, is Cahill’s insight, eye for detail, and understated humor. He makes writing humor look easy.

Confucius Lives Next Door by T.R. Reid

This is sort of A Year in Provence in Japan, only the cross-cultural differences are that much greater, which to me makes the book that much more compelling. Reid and his family moved to Tokyo when he became the bureau chief for The Washington Post. His immersion in Japanese culture allows him to uncover truths about the country glossed over in the parachute journalism one usually reads. Among the highlights are his observations about Japanese schools, including Yodobashi No. 6 Elementary School, where his daughters were greeted upon their enrollment with a big school assembly.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

This book chronicles the three seasons Abbey spent working as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Southeastern Utah. But it’s far more than an eco-memoir. Abbey found himself in the area at a time, several decades ago, when the National Park Service was working to build more roads into the wilderness to expand recreation opportunities. Abbey wanted nothing to do with it. He writes with passion about the need for preserving wild places. He rails against the threats posed by what he calls “Industrial Tourism.” He even describes his own modest attempts to sabotage some of the development. This is writing about place with an especially strong moral conviction.

God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey by Ian Buruma

Sometimes the best books find you. I was in the midst of a trip through Southeast Asia, struggling to make sense of several different cultures, when I happened upon God’s Dust in a Singapore bookshop. It was a godsend. Buruma is a brainy writer who has a gift for blending trenchant cultural analysis with strong first-person storytelling. Among other things he explores how Thai prostitutes reconcile their work with their devotion to Buddhism, and how modern Singapore traces its roots to Confucianism and Cambridge University.

Salon.com’s Wanderlust edited by Don George

Before the powers that be at Salon shut down the online magazine’s travel section, travel editor Don George published some of the best stories to be written in recent years. This book captures the spirit of that section and features many of the highlights. Rolf Potts’ “Storming The Beach,” a piece of travel stunt journalism, is one of my favorites. Pico Iyer’s classic essay “Why We Travel” is reason enough to pick up the book. That essay, more than any other I’ve read, begins to articulate the seductive hold travel has on me and so many others I know.

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Like so many people, I fell in love with Kerouac’s novels in my late teens and early 20s. On the Road gets all the press, but I always loved The Dharma Bums. Why include it on a list of travel books? Kerouac beautifully captures the romance of California trains, Berkeley, and backpacking in the Sierras. It’s hard to read this book without wanting to light out for the mountains to brainstorm bad haikus on the trail and cook canned macaroni and cheese over a crackling campfire.

A Way to See the World by Thomas Swick

I love Swick’s definition of travel as “anything that extends one’s realm of experience or expands one’s lexicon of acquired convictions and occurs beyond the backyard.” That’s about as broad a definition of travel as you can get. Swick is the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and this book is a collection of Swick’s own travel stories – ranging from a piece about Cuba to a story about Archer, Texas, where the writer Larry McMurtry resides and sells antiquarian books. Each story is delightful.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

If he were alive today, Thoreau would probably wince if he heard someone refer to Walden as a travel book. But I think of it as a travel-writing masterpiece. “I went into the woods,” he famously writes, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” That’s the same spirit of discovery (including self-discovery) that defines so many great contemporary travel memoirs. The book is as relevant today as ever.

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