Top 10 Best Travel Books

You can’t travel the world with a snap of your fingers, but you can get pretty close in the pages of a well-written book. Whether it's a travel book about sailing the seas alone or the retracing of steps along the Inca Trail, a travel book inspires the wanderer in us and has us looking longingly at our empty suitcases. No easier than choosing a favorite child, we've compiled a list of our 10 favorite travel books of all time.
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Emperor penguin in Antarctica
The extremely cold and inhospitable Antarctica is the setting of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book The Worst Journey in the World, a narrative about his 1910 journey into the arctic.  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

It would be impossible to read every travel book ever written: From fish-out-of-water tales to dry observations to survival epics, adventurers far away and close to home have been penning their dispatches since the invention of the leather-bound journal. Even more difficult? Choosing the top 10 travel books from all over the big, big world. But choose we did—aiming for a mix of humor, mishaps, history, and voice. Here are our picks for the best travel books. As Steinbeck once said, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

10. The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
We had to include one trip that no one would ever want to replicate: a doomed expedition to the South Pole. Cherry, just 24, joins Robert Falcon Scott in 1910 in a quest to reach the very bottom of Antarctica—and has to deal with everything from killer whale attacks and storms at sea to temperatures of minus 70 degrees and gear sleds weighing 700 pounds. In fact, it is one hellish misadventure after another, and it falls on Cherry to search for Scott when he doesn’t return from his final push to the Pole. Drawing on his own experience and the journal entries of his partners, Cherry’s account is draining and utterly captivating.

9. The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain
Some things never change—like the way certain white, egocentric, upper-class Americans go about their vacations overseas. Or the way Mark Twain sees the world, with a voice that’s as brutally honest and delightfully witty as it is critical and un-P.C. Based on Twain’s “Great Pleasure Excursion” aboard the chartered vessel Quaker City in 1867, Innocents stops along the Mediterranean coast, Marseilles, Paris, the Black Sea, and Odessa on the way to the Holy Land—and does so in a tone that is like nothing of its time. “I offer no apologies,” writes Twain in the preface, “for any departures from the usual style of travel writing that may be charged against me.”

8. The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński
Less a travel tale than a composite portrait of an autocracy, Polish foreign correspondent Kapuściński takes on Haile Selassie—King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty, and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia—as his regime is crumbling in 1974. Told in the words of servants and close associates, The Emperor is understated and deadpan on its surface, but it’s ultimately a scathing look at the machinery of government during a country’s transition.

7. West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
Hemingway said of Markham, “She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” And while the true authorship of this memoir is still in question (some think it was written by her third husband), there is no doubt that it’s a beautiful account of an extraordinary life full of dangerous scrapes, evocative landscapes, and direct prose. Markham spent her childhood in East Africa; her playmates were Maruni children, and her father bred racehorses. After becoming a bush pilot in the 1930s, she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.

6. In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
This 1977 masterpiece isn’t told through a traditional narrative arc. Rather, it’s a perfectly jumbled collection of 97 episodes from Chatwin’s adventure through the South American plains in search of a brontosaurus relic, told in the form of short chapters that accumulate into a tapestry of culture, eccentricity, and that particular aimlessness and restlessness that are essential to the travel experience. Unlike many books in the genre, the “I” statements are few and far between. More than just a searing portrait of remoteness and beauty, it shows that history may well be a collection of stories.

Published: 9 May 2012 | Last Updated: 6 Jul 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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