The 10 Best Travel Books for Your Second Act
You've suddenly got time on your hands and space (or how to travel through it) on your mind. Where are you going to find books that fire your interest in taking off, give you a sense of what to expect and open doors to the unknown all around us? Here's a start, at least, with one writer's wildly subjective list of the books that have moved me to think about life in new ways and transported me to the farthest corners of possibility.
1. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
His young wife had just died of cancer, his Zen training was only beginning and the distinguished novelist and explorer didn't know what to do with his anger and confusion. He decided to take off with a biologist friend into the remotest Himalayas and returned with the most luminous and crystalline account of mountains and clear light ever written. Matthiessen never saw the snow leopard--but he spotted the much rarer and more elusive creature known as his true self.
2. Among the Cities by Jan Morris
The Welsh essayist who began life as a man (serving in the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers and covering the first ascent of Everest, in 1953, as James Morris) is the great literary impressionist of our times. Morris doesn't give us photos of the places she visits, but rich, nuanced, melodiously vivid portraits. If you can read her accounts of New York, L.A., Kashmir--and pretty much everywhere--and not want to jump onto a plane, then maybe you are one of those who should just stay at home and find your private version of heaven there.
3. Watermark by Joseph Brodsky
You say you've encountered so many books and movies about Venice that you never want to hear another word about it. Fine. Read this shimmering, quicksilver evocation of the watery city, from one of the 20th century's greatest poets, and you'll be moved to pursue romance and adventure everywhere--even in Venice, California.
4. Holidays in Hell by P.J. O'Rourke
O'Rourke does everything he can to make you dislike him--he's snarky, provocative and full of gags--and yet the fact remains: No American writer gets places as fully, as accurately, and with as much research and surreptitious feeling as this Republican gonzo does. The media tells you what's happening in Haiti, El Salvador and the Philippines; this seemingly free-and-easy journalist tells you how those places feel, as intelligently and as attentively as anyone you might read.
5. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
The Danish novelist probably never expected to fall in love with the Ngong Hills and her farm outside Nairobi; the definition of love, for a place as much as for a person, is that it comes out of nowhere, and with all reason flowing against it. Dinesen's book remains the best inspiration ever for making a new life abroad. Travel will take you to places inside yourself you never thought to visit.
6. The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The difficulty of being a foreigner, especially in sealed-up Japan, is that you get lonely, disenchanted and estranged. The beauty of being a foreigner, as Donald Richie shows in his most haunting book, is that loneliness makes for new friends, estrangement gives you freedom, and the alien always offers fresh fascinations to observe. First arriving in Japan with the U.S. Occupation force in 1947, Richie has been there more or less ever since, an elegant, soulful model of how to live happily in a place that will never be his.
7. The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
War was closing in on Europe and Miller knew he had to abandon his cozy perch in Paris. What did he do? Sail off to Greece to lose and rediscover himself amidst the radiant ghosts of Epidaurus, Crete and Delphi. Much of the book is crazy and ranting, but the parts that aren't offer a more liberating and contagious sense of excitement than any work I know.
8. In Morocco by Edith Wharton
The great dissector of societal mores and the confinements of the New York dinner party was, in her spare time, as spirited, fearless and sensuously alert a traveler as you could hope to meet. In this, the most brilliantly colored and intrepid of her books, Wharton travels around Morocco in 1917, at 55 years old, and takes even her car breaking down in the desert as an excuse for enchanted (but always sharp-eyed) contemplation.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Anywhere can be paradise, if only you have the eyes to see it. But finding those eyes is never easy. Thoreau remains the best guide ever to stepping off the grid, unplugging your cell phone and discovering those essential truths that will most deeply sustain you--even a couple of miles from home. Who'd have thought that the outskirts of Boston could be so transporting? (Those who prefer Washington state can pick up Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm instead.)
10. The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
The late German writer walks and walks (through England, in this case) to try to escape his past (born in Germany in 1944, the son of an S.S. officer). But everywhere he goes, of course, he finds churchyards, fading snapshots and exiles as troubled as himself. He renders all this in haunting prose that, even in translation, is musty and redolent of yew trees. The truly great travel writer is one who can make even the country in which you were born new, full of feeling and weirdly beautiful.