A somewhat random, completely personal list of books that challenge us to think more carefully about travel, movement, and how we engage with the world.
A few months ago, back before COVID-19 was the topic on everyone’s mind, the Tablet editors considered doing a list of our favorite books that made us think about travel in challenging ways — books about journeys fantastic and fraught, books about people and places and discovery. There were perhaps too many options — the hero’s journey is practically a part of every novel — so we never fully committed to the idea. Then came the coronavirus, and it seemed a more appropriate time than ever to recommend some reading materials for those who might be stuck at home and looking for distraction; for those curious about how the past can comment on the present; or for those seeking a little inspiration for when they’re finally able to embark upon another journey of their own.
The list we came up with this week is random and personal, as it should be, and more reflective of the current reality. These are the tales that cause us to reexamine our standing, both literal and figurative, and the way in which we go about in the world — or are compelled not to. Travel, at its barest essence, is nothing more than the movement from one place to another, and these are the stories that move us the most.
Each entry includes a link to Bookshop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck, 1939
The Grapes of Wrath is either the first or the last book you’d consider when listing pieces of “travel writing.” It’s the road at its grittiest, least romantic, and most American — and that’s why we chose it. But we could’ve just as easily chosen it for the parallels between the Great Depression and the fallout from today’s global pandemic — no similarity more urgent than the Tom Joad-ian need for us to be there for those who are struggling the most.
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X with Alex Haley, 1965
Malcolm X traveled to Mecca in April 1964, only 10 months before his assassination. His pilgrimage to the Muslim holy land affected him profoundly, causing him to evolve many of his previously held beliefs. While he owed no apologies for the more militant stances of his earlier years, he was a man who always sought truth, and on his journey he saw the potential for a peace and understanding that might overcome the systemic racism and white supremacy that he fought against in America.
Back at the Frankfurt airport, we took a United Arab Airlines plane on to Cairo. Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.
Of Walking in Ice
Werner Herzog, 1978
In late 1974, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog walked 600 miles from Munich to Paris to visit his dying friend. He believed that the act of walking might help keep the friend alive. Herzog documented the cold, snowy hike in his 1978 book, Of Walking in Ice. The inimitable manner in which the director describes the world is no less effective on the page than it is in his legendary documentaries.
An elderly woman gathering wood, plump and impoverished, tells me about her children one by one, when they were born, when they died. When she becomes aware that I want to go on, she talks three times as fast, shortening destinies, skipping the deaths of three children although adding them later on, unwilling to let even one fate slip away—and this in a dialect that makes it hard for me to follow what she is saying. After the demise of an entire generation of offspring, she would speak no more about herself except to say that she gathers wood, every day; I should have stayed longer.
Sarah Vowell, 2011
If you like the author’s style, you’ll like her book, full of amusing musings and daydreaming asides as she traces mainland America’s strange, circuitous relationship with Hawaii. A wittily-written, casual history by NPR veteran Sarah Vowell.
Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch? Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound for Hawaii in 1819. That and it’s Saturday. Rainbow Drive-In only serves shoyu chicken four days a week.
A banyan tree in Waikiki is a fine spot for a sunburned tourist from New York City to sit beneath and ponder the historical implications of a lukewarm box of takeout. Because none of us belong here — not me, not the macaroni, not the chicken soaked in soy sauce, not even the tree.
The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles, 1949
There’s irony in the self-description of the travelers who are the focus of Paul Bowles’s postwar novel of American expats in North Africa — it turns out they’re not as adaptable as they think, and their attempt to venture beyond the borders of the “civilized” world ends in tragedy. It’s a thought-provoking corrective to the romantic fantasy of the “global nomad” — and it’s a particularly apt one right now, when the thought of travel itself is necessarily bound up with fear of death.
He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.
At this point they had crossed the Atlantic for the first time since 1939, with a great deal of luggage and the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places which had been touched by the war. For, as he claimed, another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. And the war was one facet of the mechanized age he wanted to forget.
Tony Perrottet, 2003
Tony Perrottet is an engaging travel writer with a penchant for history, and here he mixes it with experience in the perfect way. Tracing the origin of the vacation to among its most ancient roots — the Roman grand tour — he sets off to take the tour himself.
For those early tourists, the whole point of travel was to go where everyone else was going — to see what everyone else was seeing, to feel what everyone else was feeling. There was a virtual checklist of tourist attractions as well as an appropriate response to them. Sight-seeing was a form of pilgrimage. It’s a modern notion of travel to seek out unique and private visions of the world—to be the first to climb the Matterhorn, the only foreigner in Timbuktu. To have mind-blowing adventures, life-altering encounters. To drive across America on recreational drugs with Neal Cassady at the wheel. On returning home, the heroic modern traveler, like some pumped-up porn star, likes to boast of going farther, harder, deeper. Original experience is worn like a badge of honor.
But that initial, ancient impulse to share the accepted wonders of the world has never actually been abandoned, even by those of us who would rather be buried under burning ash than join a bus tour of the Mediterranean. It’s an underlying point of connection between the ancient Romans and every traveler wandering the region today. The difference is that those first sightseers accepted the logic of their situation. They were never put off by being part of a crowd. In fact, a certain level of hubbub was an expected part of the project.
The White Album
Joan Didion, 1979
The White Album is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that focus on the author’s experiences and impressions of California in the 1960s and ’70s. The iconic writer journeys through the heart of an iconic time and place, and in the book’s lead essay, she documents such era-defining happenings as a Black Panther Party meeting and a recording session by The Doors.
IT WAS SIX, seven o’clock of an early spring evening in 1968 and I was sitting on the cold vinyl floor of a sound studio on Sunset Boulevard, watching a band called The Doors record a rhythm track. On the whole my attention was only minimally engaged by the preoccupations of rock-and-roll bands (I had already heard about acid as a transitional stage and also about the Maharishi and even about Universal Love, and after a while it all sounded like marmalade skies to me), but The Doors were different, The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex. Break on through, their lyrics urged, and Light my fire.
On this evening in 1968 they were gathered together in uneasy symbiosis to make their third album, and the studio was too cold and the lights were too bright and there were masses of wires and banks of the ominous blinking electronic circuitry with which musicians live so easily. There were three of the four Doors. There was a bass player borrowed from a band called Clear Light. There were the producer and the engineer and the road manager and a couple of girls and a Siberian husky named Nikki with one gray eye and one gold. There were paper bags half filled with hard-boiled eggs and chicken livers and cheeseburgers and empty bottles of apple juice and California rose. There was everything and everybody The Doors needed to cut the rest of this third album except one thing, the fourth Door, the lead singer, Jim Morrison, a 24-year-old graduate of U.C.L. A. who wore black vinyl pants and no underwear and tended to suggest some range of the possible just beyond a suicide pact.
Sterling Hayden, 1963
Sterling Hayden starred in some of the most important films ever produced, including iconic roles in The Godfather and Dr. Strangelove. But he spent most of his career battling the Hollywood system, and carving out time to return to his true love: the sea. Hayden spent a significant part of his younger years sailing the world on steamers and schooners, and his passion for being alone amongst the waves — a wandering soul free from the ornament and entanglements of society — comes through loud and clear in his writing.
To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… “cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.
James Joyce, 1914
By most definitions, it’s a short story, and is best known as the final piece in the Dubliners collection — but “The Dead” is long enough to stand on its own, and has been published as a standalone volume. Over the course of a little more than 15,000 words it covers a single evening in the life of Gabriel Conroy as he attends a Christmas party held by his three aunts; and by the end it’s managed to cast its eye over the whole of Ireland — and, arguably, the whole of humanity, the living as well as the dead. The final passage — which, incidentally, takes place in a hotel — is among the finest by Joyce or any other writer of English:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
A Small Place
Jamaica Kincaid, 1988
A brilliant, scathing nonfiction novella about tourism in Antigua, guaranteed to affect the way you think about the industry for the rest of your life. The New York Times put out a reflection on the book in 2016, and they summarized it this way: “a mere seven years after the nation’s independence, [A Small Place] positioned Antigua’s tourism industry as a vestige of colonial rule.” It’s a crucial counterpoint to any number of rosy travel writings — a fascinating work.
That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe, 1979
Tom Wolfe’s book about the daring 1950s test pilots who broke the sound barrier and then went on to slip the surly bonds of earth in NASA’s Project Mercury spaceflight program also examines the hype and overstatement that surrounded those incredibly human heroes, and the impossible expectations pinned on them by a nation and media increasingly distracted by Cold War scorekeeping.
It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a central nervous system. In the late 1950’s (as in the late 1970’s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone, should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one’s private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.)
A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles, 2016
Quite the opposite from the rest of our selections, Towles’ protagonist is, almost exclusively, unmoving and stuck in a hotel. Yes, his path crosses with those on their own journeys, but it’s his reflection on his lack of movement that sheds the most light on the meaning of the word. Besides, it’s a gripping narrative that all takes place in a hotel. We had to include it.
From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment; we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well, taking comfort from the notion that we will hear word of him soon enough.
But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity — all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. This armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera. Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.
Lost City of Z
David Grann, 2009
David Grann’s book tells the story of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett’s 1925 quest to uncover an ancient, lost city in Brazil that he called “Z.” The doomed journey led to the mysterious death of Fawcett and his son, and was also depicted in James Gray’s staggering 2016 film of the same name. It’s a harrowing tale, to be sure, as much for the obsession and fate of the protagonist as for its illustration of the consequences of European over-curiosity in South America.
“Anthropologists,” Heckenberger said, “made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That’s why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find.”
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding
Kristin Newman, 2014
A comedy writer on shows like How I Met Your Mother and That ’70s Show, Kristin Newman’s hilarious memoir about traveling in her 30s has a genuinely inspirational travel philosophy: do things in new places. The title should give you a sense of the tone.
I love to do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it. That means always getting the specialty of the house. That means smoking cigarettes I don’t smoke at the perfect corner café for hours at a time in Paris, and stripping naked for group hot-tubbing with people you don’t want to see naked in Big Sur. It means riding short, fuzzy horses that will throw me onto the arctic tundra in Iceland, or getting beaten with hot, wet branches by old naked women in stifling banyas in Moscow. When these moments happen, I get absurdly happy, like the kind of happy other people report experiencing during the birth of their children. And getting romanced by a Brazilian in Brazil, or a Cretan in Crete … this, to me, just happens to be the gold medal in the Do the Thing You’re Supposed to Do Olympics.
David McCullough, 2002
David McCullough’s book about the second President of the United States won the Pulitzer Prize, then the HBO adaptation won more Emmys and Golden Globes than any other miniseries in history. It’s an important biography of a towering figure, but our favorite passage is perhaps the book’s most light-hearted moment, when traveling one night in September 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were forced to share a bed at a small tavern in New Jersey.
The journey consumed two days. With the road crowded, progress was slow and dusty. At New Brunswick the inn was so full, Adams and Franklin had to share the same bed in a tiny room with only one small window. Before turning in, when Adams moved to close the window against the night air, Franklin objected, declaring they would suffocate. Contrary to convention, Franklin believed in the benefits of fresh air at night and had published his theories on the question. “People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small close rooms,” he had written, stressing “it is the frowzy corrupt air from animal substances, and the perspired matter from our bodies, which, being long confined in beds not lately used, and clothes not lately worn . . . obtains that kind of putridity which infects us, and occasions the colds observed upon sleeping in, wearing, or turning over, such beds [and] clothes.” He wished to have the window remain open, Franklin informed Adams.
“I answered that I was afraid of the evening air,” Adams would write, recounting the memorable scene. “Dr. Franklin replied, ‘The air within this chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without doors. Come, open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds.’ ” Adams assured Franklin he had read his theories; they did not match his own experience, Adams said, but he would be glad to hear them again.
So the two eminent bedfellows lay side-by-side in the dark, the window open, Franklin expounding, as Adams remembered, “upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep.”
Albert Camus, 1947
For a bonus 16th entry, we go out on a timely and prophetic warning from one the great existentialist writers. We’ll all be traveling again soon enough, but until then we hope everyone is staying safe, staying healthy, and staying positive.
Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given them to lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.