It’s always hard to make a selection and this time wasn’t going to be different since we wanted to do a list with the best 20 travel books of ALL TIME. So, we sat together and after many discussions and plenty coffee this is was we came up with. Happy reading!
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
This book should come with a health warning aimed particularly at those in their formative years: proceed with caution, you may never be able to settle in one place again. And you might take up hitch-hiking. On The Road features a series of trips made by Kerouac and his Beat Generation friends across America in the years after the Second World War.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
Laurie Lee’s lyrical account of his voyages as a young man in the 1930s is a masterpiece in English travel writing. Lee, who also wrote Cider with Rosie, describes his departure from a sleepy part of the Cotswolds, to London then Spain, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and a violin. Exhilarating, whimsical and poetic, it captures a fascinating moment in time.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis
Lewis arrived in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944, ostensibly employed by the army to liaise with the locals. The year-long diary he kept is a sublime portrait of the city and its people; a starving population that has devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium; a place where respectable women have been driven to prostitution; where he meets an extraordinary collection of characters such as the gynaecologist who “specializes in the restoration of lost virginity” and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. “Were I given the chance to be born again,” writes Lewis, “Italy would be the country of my choice.”
Coasting: A Private Voyage by Jonathan Raban
Coasting tells the story of the author’s 4,000-mile journey around Britain in a 32-foot ketch, using only a compass for navigation. The story, like the voyage, digresses into personal memories, while the book is a metaphor for Raban’s own life. “For years I coasted from job to job, place to place, person to person. At the first hint of adverse weather I hauled up my anchor and moved on with the tide,” he said.
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
In 1960 John Steinbeck and his gregarious French poodle Charley set out in a converted pick up truck to tour the US. The result is Travels with Charley in Search of America, an absorbing and beautifully written account of the landscapes and people he encounters along the way. His bleak evocation of events and attitudes in the deep south reveal just how much America has changed in the past five decades.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson’s farewell journey across the length and breadth of Britain is delivered with a combination of irreverent humour and touching nostalgia, while offering insights into our modern society. The list of Britain’s more bizarre place names and Bryson’s unerring antipathy towards some of the country’s less glamourous outposts are particularly amusing.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Part political history, part autobiography, part travelogue, George Orwell’s description of the role he played in the Spanish Civil War gives one of the most vivid English-language accounts of Barcelona at that turbulent time. It also proved agonisingly prophetic. After a being hit by a bullet (of which Orwell gives a searing account), the author returns home, where he says the inhabitants are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. The book was first published in 1938.
The Beach by Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s tale of a British backpackers’ search for paradise on earth – and the novel’s subsequent film adaptation – helped inspire a generation of gap year students to head to the Far East and is symbolic of the all-consuming escapism that travel can provide.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux’s first and arguably finest book, The Great Railway Bazaar recounts a four-month journey throughEurope, Asia and the Middle East. An essential for any enthusiast of train travel, the book features some of the world’s greatest lines, including the Trans-Siberian and India’s Grand Trunk Express.
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
“The Road to Oxiana”, written in the form of a diary, is considered by many to be the first example of great modern travel writing (indeed some even describe it as the “Ulysses” of travel writing). Its subject matter is a journey made by the author in 1933/34 through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Tehran to Oxiana – the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union. The book is a gripping, humorous account of Byron’s adventures, of the people he met along the way and of the architectural treasures of a region now only visited by the most intrepid of Western travellers.
Venice by Jan Morris
Few novels get under the skin of a city as well as Jan Morris’s Venice. The book offers a wealth of information on the city’s past and contains exquisite description. “Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell,” writes Morris.