Travel is one of the great inspirations. It expands our minds and horizons. It helps us to explore new surroundings and return home with a new perspective. Come to think of it, travel has a lot in common with reading—so next time your feet are feeling itchy and you’ve got that urge to lace up your shoes and head for the great outdoors, why not try one of these books on for size?
The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin
Travel across Europe with some of the great writers and minds of the past century with the founder of Bookslut. Upon turning 30, Crispin decided to burn her life in Chicago and travel to Europe, where she toured around Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and former Yugoslavia) with Rebecca West, learned of Maud Gonne in Dublin, and saw London through Jean Rhys’s eyes. Its subtitle: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries hints at a fractured and dated literary canon and, as David McConnell puts it in his blurb, “[tries] to heal the rift between us regular people and the heroic age of art”. Her personal crises and personal reactions to art make this a literary travelogue that will have you out exploring for a second (or third, or more) country to call home.
Back-up Recommendation: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West – one of the key texts discussed during Crispin’s’ travels in Sarajevo. It weights in at almost 1200 pages and blends travelogue with history. Once you’ve read The Dead Ladies Project, you’ll be dying to pick this up.
Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
No list is complete without a road trip novel. But instead of a novel, we’ve selected a non-fiction tome by one of America’s most beloved novelists. Transport yourself in time and space with John Steinbeck who, post-literary fame, took a trip around the country in an RV with his poodle named Charley, where he encountered what he dubbed a “new America”. In a foreword, however, John’s son Thom reminds us that, “it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist.” Regardless of the truth of his anecdotes, the boom times of 1950s America resonate as a distant memory that, read today, recall a time of industrial/pragmatic view of progress that feel almost utopian today.
Back-up Recommendation: Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi, both by Mark Twain. Roughing it is a fictionalized account of his trip to the Nevada Territory to work with his brother, while Life on the Mississippi is his more well-known memoir about his pre-Civil War career as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River.
Jenny Diski’s travel writing is perfect for homebodies who dream of travel but prefer to spend most of their time sitting still. Diski turned her distant dream to travel to Antarctica and experience its expansive whiteness into a reality. As she begins her journey with her trademark reluctance, she marries the narrative of her travels with the sister-story of her daughter’s search to find her estranged grandmother. This, in turn, leads the author into a series of reflections of a childhood during which she was brought up by volatile parents and a mentally-ill mother whom she hasn’t seen for decades. The narratives are interweaved through observations about the people and places she encounters, a mystery that’s well worth reading and a journey that will have you reaching for the nearest globe to spin.
Back-up Recommendation: Stranger on a Train, also by Jenny Diski. A loose follow-up to Skating to Antarctica, she takes two journeys around the continental United States by train. Following a similar prose pattern, she shares the stories she learns from her fellow passengers while following up the story of her childhood with tales from her teenage years.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Ready to pack your bags up, fly to Europe and soak up some sunshine? If a faraway beach holiday sounds like a dream The Vacationers is for you… as long as you can handle some family drama thrown in for good measure.
When the Post family takes a two-week trip to the island of Mallorca in the the Balearics (near Spain) to escape the tensions at home in Manhattan, they get more heat than they bargained for. What follows is a seemingly simple tale of family dynamics that goes deep, exploring the impact of change within families, the ways we present ourselves to our family versus the rest of the world, and unique bonds. It looks like a beach read, but reads like an epic.
Back-up Recommendation: Looking for something a little darker? If you’re a creative person who has traveled to, or dreamt of traveling to, an isolated retreat to pursue your work in solitude, John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning is more your speed.
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, Translated by Christina MacSweeney
In her break-out essay collection, Luselli explores the places that shape our lives: from lines on a map to nostalgic memories and the ways we navigate city streets. It’s a literary journey that will make you think about who you are as a reader. You’ll revisit the spaces that are the most important to you as a person as if from the sky, by bike, or on foot, to see how your perceptions change.
The author has lived in many countries, and this collection is an opportunity to trail her around her thoughts on landscapes, public and private melancholy, and digressions on language. In many pieces she revisits landmarks from her past; she searches for the tomb of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in a Venetian graveyard (an experience she likens to meeting someone in a café); and she muses on the untranslatable Portugese word “saudade,” something akin to nostalgia. It’s a journey of thought, place and even form, and while change how you look at your home.
Backup reccomendation: The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson. From the mind of another well-traveled Mexican author who happens to be one of Luiselli’s influences. The book is the first of his three volumes called the Trilogy of Memory in which he contemplates memoir, travel, and literature.