A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a thousand (or more) poetic words about a place have the power to inspire us to travel. Here, a literature professor and author shares her top 10 timeless travel books all but guaranteed to you to get out and explore.
Travel Books that Inspire
One of my favorite calming pre-flight rituals is to buy a book in the airport bookstore. If I can find a novel set in the place I’m traveling to, so much the better. But I’ll settle for reading any book with a strong sense of place.
Some of my earliest memories are of traveling between two very different places, New York City and Athens, Greece. The annual trips began when I was 3 years old. Both of my parents emigrated from Greece and faithfully returned each summer, growing family in tow, to reconnect with the people and traditions they left behind.
My memories come to me in images, snatched from the precipice of my unconscious. I remember waking up after an uncomfortable night folded into my airplane seat, disoriented and mildly nauseous, and peering out the window at the city below. Unlike the gleaming silver skyscrapers of my native New York, Athens unfurled in low, uniform buildings, tightly packed and spread across hills and mountains.
New Sights and Smells
At the airport, I remember food carts that offered “toast,” which was not, as it was at home, toasted bread but toasted bread with cheese, and possibly ham. Small bags of potato chips clipped to the carts advertised flavors I’d never imagined—hot dog, paprika, feta.
Outside, assaulted by the acrid smell of exhaust and choking smog so thick it was almost visible, I felt the vastness of the unknown world and the smallness of me within it. It was not so much frightening as it was exhilarating – so many mysteries to uncover and explore!
This was my first realization of how the fine details that make up everyday life—the landscape, scents, food—eventually melt into background material, barely worthy of notice. But when traveling beyond our everyday boundaries, even the familiar becomes new (hot-dog-flavored potato chips?!).
The Promise of Travel
The promise of travel is that, along with the things around us, we may also experience ourselves as new, discovering unrealized potential, renewed enthusiasm, untold strength. Such is the case with the travelers in these 10 novels and memoirs, who undertake journeys both literal and metaphorical.
They might just inspire you to embark on your own journey of discovery, whether by foot, plane, train, or through the pages of a book.
10 Timeless Travel Books
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
Gopnik chronicles the years he, his wife, and their young son spent living in the City of Light. Overflowing with fascinating observations, experiences, and descriptions, the memoir explores the idea that “wherever you go, there you are.”
Americanah: by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s engrossing novel tells the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, who meet and fall in love as teenagers in Nigeria but travel down very different paths on the way to adulthood. At turns funny, philosophical, heartbreaking, and intellectual, it is a meditation on first love, on race and class in the U.S. and U.K., on living in a third World country, on immigration, and on finding home.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
At the age of 26, having lost her mother, her marriage, and her equilibrium, Strayed embarked on a three-month solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The difficult journey she undertook physically mirrored the difficult journey she was undergoing emotionally, and her honest, and at times painful, insights have inspired readers to think hard about their own paths through life.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
In Joyce’s poignant novel, retiree Harold Fry makes the impromptu decision to walk across England with the goal of reaching his former co-worker, who is dying of cancer on the other side of the country. His journey and the insights he gains about himself along the way create a heartfelt meditation on who we become and how to recover a sense of faith and possibility.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas
Dumas’ memoir explores the immigrant experience in humorous anecdotes. Though she doesn’t shy away from difficult experiences, she maintains a light and loving tone throughout, infusing her stories of places and experiences with tenderness and nostalgia.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Two journeys converge in this moving novel, that of Nao – a 16-year old Californian who returns to her native Tokyo, where she is isolated, bullied, and contemplating suicide – and Ruth – a struggling writer who discovers Nao’s journal after it washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. At times disturbing but ultimately uplifting, the novel weaves Buddhist principles with scientific concepts and meta observations about the power of storytelling.
Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
In this affecting memoir about self-discovery, Kidd and her daughter tell the story of their travels through Europe, which they undertook when each was on the precipice of a new stage of life. Turning 50 and facing her “second act” in life, Kidd reflects on her journey so far while her 22-year-old daughter, Taylor, a newly minted college graduate, contemplates what to do with her life.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
In Straub’s summer hit, a family in crisis embarks on a two-week vacation to Mallorca. The beautiful locale plays counterpoint to the dramas and longings playing out among the characters, rendered with equal parts wit, pathos, and biting insight.
We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn
Coburn’s charming memoir was inspired by the European vacations she took with her daughter, Katie, beginning when Katie was eight. Traveling through iconic cities, and taking readers along for the ride, Coburn also travels into her self as she learns to embrace the beauty in transience.
Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith
Four travelers on a train from Edinburgh to London, who begin their journey as complete strangers, share their stories of love and loss with each other. If you’ve ever found yourself engrossed in a deeply personal conversation with a complete stranger simply because you happened to be seated next to each other on a train, plane, or boat, then you may relate to this light but soulful novel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sally Allen is an award-winning author who holds a PhD in English Education from New York University, with an emphasis in writing and rhetoric, and an MA in English Language and Literature. She has taught writing and literature at New York University and Fairfield University, and is the recipient of New York University’s Willy Gorrissen Award for Dedication and Skill in the Academic Development of Student Writing. Currently, Allen is a faculty member at Post University where she teaches literature, writing, and communications. She is the founder of Books, Ink at HamletHub, a website dedicated to Connecticut books news, where her writing has earned her three Connecticut Press Club awards.
Unlocking Worlds (Griffins Wharf, 2015) can be purchased from Amazon and other booksellers nationwide. More information about Sally Allen can be found at www.sallyallenbooks.com, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.