The Top Ten Most Influential Travel Books

Even before there were armchairs, voracious bookworms traveled the world just by reading

Over the course of more than 2,000 years, countless travel books have transformed little known places into popular destinations. (© Owen Franken / CORBIS)

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5. Norman Douglas, Siren Land (1911)

The Italian island of Capri began its proud reputation for licentiousness in ancient Roman times, and by the mid-19 century was luring free-living artists, writers and bon vivants from chilly northern climes. (It was even said that Europe had two art capitals, Paris and Capri). But its modern reputation was sealed by the libertine writer Norman Douglas, whose volume Siren Land offered an account of the carefree southern Italian life “where paganism and nudity and laughter flourished,” an image confirmed by his 1917 novel South Wind, where the island is called Nepenthe, after the ancient Greek elixir of forgetfulness. (Siren Land gets its title from Homer’s Odyssey; Capri was the home of the Sirens, ravishing women who lured sailors to their deaths by shipwreck with their magical voices). Millions of sun-starved British readers were captivated by the vision of Mediterranean sensuality and Douglas' playful humor. (“It is rather puzzling when one comes to think of it,” he writes, “to conceive how the old Sirens passed their time on days of wintry storm. Modern ones would call for cigarettes, Grand Marnier, and a pack of cards, and bid the gale howl itself out.”) Douglas himself was flamboyantly gay, and liked to scamper drunkenly around Capri’s gardens with vine leaves in his hair. Thanks largely to his writings, the island in the 1920s entered a new golden age, luring exiles disillusioned by post-war Europe. The visitors included many great British authors who also penned travel writing classics, such as D.H. Lawrence (whose marvelous Etruscan Places covers his travels in Italy; Lawrence also showed drafts of the torrid Lady Chatterly’s Lover to friends while on holiday in Capri in 1926), E.M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and W.H. Auden. (The renowned poet wrote a travel volume on Iceland, of all places). The collective vision of Mediterranean freedom has inspired generations of travelers to those warm shores ever since.

6. Freya Stark, The Valley of the Assassins (1934)

The Victorian age produced a surprising number of adventurous women travel writers—Isabella Bird, for instance, wrote about exploring Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains and China—but the authors were regarded as rare and eccentric exceptions rather than role models by female readers. In the more liberated era of the 1930s, Freya Stark's tome revealed just how far women could travel alone and live to write about it. Her breakthrough book, The Valley of the Assassins, was a thrilling account of her journey through the Middle East. Its highlight was her visit to the ruined stronghold of the Seven Lords of Alamut, a medieval cult of hashish-eating political killers in the Elburz Mountains of Iran whose exploits had been legendary in the West since the Crusades. (The singular escapade made her one of the first women ever inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.) The bestseller was followed by some two dozen works whose freshness and candor inspired women to venture, if not by donkey into war zones, at least into exotic climes. “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world,” she enthused in Baghdad Sketches. “You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”

7. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

This thinly veiled autobiographical novel, about a group of young friends hitch-hiking and bumming their way across the United States, has inspired generations of restless readers to take a leap into the unknown. Although the publisher made Kerouac change the actual names (Kerouac became Sal Paradise, the wild driver Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty and poet Allen Ginsberg became Carlo Marx), its episodes were almost entirely drawn from life, qualifying it as a classic of travel writing. It was also a cultural phenomenon: Kerouac legendarily hammered out the whole lyrical work on a giant scroll of paper (possibly on one speed-induced binge), and carried it about in his rucksack for years before it was published, becoming an instant icon of the rebellious “beat” era, thumbing its nose at the leaden conformity of the cold war era. Today, it is still a dangerous book to read at an impressionable age (at least for younger males; women tend to be left out of the boyish pursuits, except as sex objects). The delirious sense of freedom as Kerouac rides across the wheat fields of Nebraska in the back of a farm truck or speeds across the Wyoming Rockies toward Denver is infectious.

8. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Across Asia on the Cheap (1973)

It was one of history's great self-publishing success stories. When two young travelers roughed it in a minivan from London to Sydney, they decided to write a practical guide about their experiences. Working on a kitchen table, they typed out a list of their favorite budget hotels and cheap restaurants from Tehran to Djakarta, stapled the copied pages together into a 90-page booklet and sold it for $1.80 a pop. Their instincts were correct: There was a huge hunger for information on how to travel on a budget in the Third World, and the modest booklet sold 1,500 copies in a week. The hit became the basis for Lonely Planet, a vast guidebook empire with books on almost every country on earth. The young and financially challenged felt welcomed into the exotic corners of Nepal, Morocco and Thailand, far from the realm of five-star hotels and tour groups, often for a few dollars a day. The guidebooks' power quickly became such that in many countries, a recommendation is still enough to make a hotelier's fortune. (Having sold 100 million copies of their guidebooks, the Wheelers finally sold Lonely Planet for £130 million in 2010 to the BBC. (The BBC recently confirmed plans to sell the franchise to NC2 Media at a loss for just £51.5 million. Nobody ever claimed Across Asia was high literature, but the Wheelers now help fund a literary institution, The Wheeler Center, in their home city of Melbourne, Australia, to promote serious fiction and non-fiction). 

9. Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977)

Along with Paul Theroux's wildly entertaining Great Railway Bazaar, Chatwin's slim, enigmatic volume became widely credited with the modern rebirth of travel writing. A former Sotheby's art auctioneer, the erudite Chatwin famously quit the London Sunday Times Magazine via telegram to his editor (“Have gone to Patagonia”) and disappeared into the then little-known and remote tip of South America. In a stylistic first for the genre, In Patagonia weaves a personal quest (for a piece of prehistoric skin of the mylodon, which the author had seen as a child) with the region's most surreal historical episodes, related in a poetic, crisp and laconic style. Focusing on god-forsaken outposts rather than popular attractions, Chatwin evokes the haunting ambiance with deftly drawn vignettes from Patagonia's storybook past, such as how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived in a cabin in southern Argentina, or how a Welsh nationalist colony was begun in the windswept town of Trelew. And thus the quirky travel pilgrimage was born.


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