One of my favorite things about travel is not just the places I get to see or the people I meet in person, it’s all the places and personalities I encounter on the page. I never read as much as I do when I’m on the road and I savor those moments that I get to dissolve into a good story. Whether I’m riding buses, taking trains, sipping coffee in cafes, sitting at bars, or kicking my feet up at the hostel, I love having a book in my hands.
Admittedly, I don’t carry 11 books in my backpack at one time—although people who have taken to e-readers might—but all of these books at one time or another have been in my backpack. This is not a collection of travel books, rather it’s a collection of really good books that are on my backpacker’s bookshelf.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals
by Maarten Troost
Maarten Troost captures the exciting and rewarding parts of travel right alongside the things that frustrate, scare, and make you second guess your decision to spend time abroad. My favorite part about this book is following Troost on all the exploits that served as distractions from his writing. It’s essentially 272 pages of procrastination on the island of Tarawa, a place where there isn’t much to do other than write. Still he finds a way to fill his time with the kinds of experiences that make for good writing … at a later date of course.
Travels with Charley
by John Steinbeck
Where better to rediscover America than from the front seat of Steinbeck’s pick up truck? Scoot over though because you have to share the seat with his poodle Charley. A quick but very enjoyable read, Travels with Charley hits on some of the best and worst parts of America in the 60s.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
This shocking story takes you into the lives of six people and reveals the truth about what it’s like to live in one of the most restricted places in the world.
Lust for Life
by Irving Stone
Follow Vincent Van Gogh from an impoverished coal mine to the streets of Paris as he painstakingly learns to express himself through art. While Stone did take liberties, he based the book largely on letters written by Vincent to his brother Theo, who was an ardent supporter of Vincent’s art. Even as pain and self-doubt consume Vincent, he learns to express his emotions through his work.
Anyone who enjoys a good dose of heart-wrenching beauty should read this book. Even more-so if you’re heading through Europe and plan to visit any of Van Gogh’s old haunts or stand in front of his paintings. After reading Lust for Life, your heart will break to witness his passion crawling out of the canvas.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
by Alfred Lansing
Even if you don’t like books about exploration, even if you don’t care for sailing, even if a literary journey in the Antarctic doesn’t appeal to you, you will not be able to put this book down. Physical endurance aside, the power and will of Shackleton’s crew is one of the best examples that the human spirit can survive even under the most brutal circumstances.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria
by Robert Crichton
When word gets around that German soldiers are headed to Santa Vittoria to stake claim to their million-bottle wine collection, the town bands together to find a secret hiding place. This is the delightful story of a small Italian village with one big secret.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
by Jonas Jonasson
When the nursing home decides to throw Allan Karlsson a party for his 100th birthday, Allan decides all he really wants is to have a drink of Vodka in peace, so he climbs out the window and disappears. This is the story of his adventures–past and present–that weave in and out of key historical events and encounters with the likes of Mao, Franco, Churchill, and Stalin. Follow Allan around the world as he drinks Vodka with some of the most unexpected comrades for a 100-year-old man.
Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom
by Slavomir Rawicz
Oftentimes, the more difficult the hardship of the characters, the harder a book is to put down–especially if it’s a true story. In The Long Walk, Rawicz, along with some of his fellow prisoners escape from a Siberian gulag and walk 500 miles to freedom. And getting out of camp and through a harsh winter landscape is only the beginning.
by Catherine Burns, Adam Gopnik and George Dawes Green
Creators of The Moth stand-up storytelling events took 50 spellbinding stories and put them into print. This book is the result. From page one I was hooked. Whether you’re already a fan of The Moth podcast or just want a great read, this is a fun collection of true stories that were originally told live on stage.
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I love everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but if you’re new to his writing this book is a good place to start. It’s a collection of 12 short stories that, for the most part, explore life for Latin American’s living in a foreign land. True to his style, Garcia Marquez weaves magical realism into all 12 tales in a way that makes the surreal seem completely relatable.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
You can take residence in a posh Paris apartment but it doesn’t mean anything unless you get to know the real heart and soul of the building—its caretaker. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, an 11-year-old girl living in one of the apartments befriends the concierge and learns that there’s more to life than the pampered existence of the wealthy. Through her friendship with the concierge, the young girl discovers the real meaning of culture, art, and human connection.
Got a Good Book?
I’m always on the hunt for good books. Do you have one that made your heart soar? I want to know what it is. In the comments below, tell me … what’s in your backpack?