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Top Ten Travel Books as Selected by Rolf Potts

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

This book deserves status as a travel classic, if for no reason other than "Song of the Open Road," an infectiously joyous ode to the wandering spirit. But beyond such explicit travel anthems, Whitman's masterpiece continually captures the attitude of curiosity and open-mindedness that comes with any engaged journey — be it a ferry ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan or a sea voyage to India.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's 1927 novel may be best remembered for mythologizing the annual "Running of the Bulls" in Pamplona. Still, its entire story stands out as a remarkable piece of travel fiction. Set in France and Spain in the years after World War I, it evokes a sense of place and character (and language and activity) that feels as real and authentic as any nonfiction travel reportage.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Orwell is best known for fabulist classics like Animal Farm and 1984, but his realist work has been unfairly overlooked. For example, Down and Out in Paris and London provides great narrative reportage about lower-working-class Europe, but what really stands out for me is Burmese Days, his fictional account of colonial life in Southeast Asia. Few books so dramatically capture the tenuousness of cross-cultural (and male-female) interaction in an overseas setting.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

All of Greene's books are a pleasure to read — not just for his nearly flawless prose but also for his consistently accurate dramatization of exotic lands such as Liberia, Paraguay, Haiti, and Cuba. The Quiet American is remarkable on two levels: first, for its keen portrayal of the expatriate experience in Saigon, and second, for its chillingly accurate prediction of America's eventual military quagmire in Vietnam.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

As a work of literature, Kerouac's Benzedrine-fueled USA adventure sometimes lacks coherence. Nevertheless, it evokes the addictive energy of spontaneous travel in a way that few traditional travel narratives can. This is why, nearly 50 years after it was first published, On the Road continues to inspire and capture the imaginations of young (and not so young) travelers worldwide.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Abbey's 1968 memoir of his experience as a park ranger in the badlands of southern Utah mixes nature writing, storytelling, speculation, opinion, ecology, geology, and human history with satire and social commentary — but, at its heart, this book is a thoughtful treatise about life and man and nature. Full of iconoclasm (and light on pretension), this book is as much a philosophical journey of the American West as it is a physical one.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Dillard's evocation of a stretch of Virginia wilderness proves that travel need not be far-flung to be meaningful. Not only can the mindful experience of a single location yield many perspectives, but such perspectives hint at a much richer spiritual realm latent anywhere one takes the time to seek it. "Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we sense them," Dillard writes. "The least we can do is try to be there."

Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer

Iyer's 1988 literary debut is an answer to all those critics who claim that great travel writing died once the terra incognita was mapped. As this Asia-themed collection of essays shows, the final frontier of adventure isn't located on some distant mountain or impenetrable jungle but in the intimate (and often comical) cross-cultural fascinations and discoveries that arise from an ever-shrinking world.

The Beach by Alex Garland

Set among backpack traveler cliques in Thailand, Garland's 1996 thriller was so gripping and cinematic that the 2000 movie adaptation (starring Leonard DiCaprio) seemed flat by comparison. And while The Beach is a tad too pulpy and pop-cultural to find a place in the literary pantheon, it is nonetheless a wicked satire that skewers the pretensions and self-delusions of "independent" travelers who mindlessly make themselves at home in cultures they scarcely understand.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

Troost's 2004 memoir of his expat stint on the Pacific island nation of Kiribati is about as good as travel-humor writing can get. Though not as scholarly as Bill Bryson or adventurous as Tim Cahill, Troost nonetheless creates a light, self-deprecating narrative tone that joyfully captures that exasperations and idiosyncrasies of life on an isolated equatorial island. Travel books don't often make me laugh out loud, but this one did.

More by and on Rolf Potts
Long-Term Travel: An Interview with Rolf Potts
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Rolf Potts Interviewed by Transitions Abroad Founder Clay Hubbs
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