Books can serve as passports to all sorts of marvelous places. Traveling via novel means you never have to worry about your visa expiring. It means having intriguing guides to show you around. And perhaps best of all, it means avoiding overly-priced, 12-hour plane flights, instead arriving at your destination as soon as you crack a cover. Although nothing will replace a feet-on-the-ground trip, we hope these reads tide you over when you’re running low on vacation days. Here are 15 travel books for the armchair travelers:
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Matt Goulding’s Roads & Kingdoms series looks nothing like the typical guidebook. Instead, these are reflections on how a country’s culture influences the food and how its food influences the culture. In this first book, you’ll travel to seven of Japan’s key regions, encountering sushi gurus in Tokyo, street vendors in Osaka, ramen makers in Fukuoka, and tea masters in Kyoto along the way.
With sentences that feed the soul, Goulding’s delicious prose is loaded with sensory language and intriguing insights. The book basks in the dedication of the shokunin: those who practice micro-disciplines to a spiritual level by refining their craft through relentless focus, repetition, and minuscule adjustments. Along the way, you’ll meet culinary geniuses like, “The twelfth-generation unagi sage who uses metal skewers like an acupuncturist uses needles, teasing the muscles of wild eel into new territories. The young man who has grown old at his father’s side, measuring his age in cooking lessons,” and the many “who dedicate their entire lives to grilling beef intestines, slicing blowfish, [and] kneading buckwheat into tangles of chewy noodles.”
Plunge into the markets, villages, and rainforests of Madagascar with Gerald Durrell, a real-life conservationist on a mission to save the endangered ploughshare tortoise, gentle lemur, giant jumping rat, and of course, the wide-eyed aye-aye. If you are unfamiliar with this peculiar primate, the author paints a delightful mental image. Picture if you will “a Walt Disney witch’s black cat with a touch of ET thrown in for good measure” and a habit of hunting insect larvae by tapping branches with its long, delicate fingers — not unlike “a pianist playing a complicated piece of Chopin.”
Durrell’s playful prose will have you smiling, smirking, and snorting at regular intervals (read in public at your own risk). His witty observations of the locals (both the human and animal kind) as well as his way of marveling at the world around him are a treat. There are also plenty of amusing antics, including saving animals destined for the cooking pot, braving roads with a spine-pulverizing number of potholes, and smuggling lemurs into hotel rooms.
In this lively memoir, a couple has just exchanged their eternally cloudy England residence for a 200-year-old farmhouse bordering the Lubéron Mountains of France. Join them as they encounter colorful neighbors, brave French roadways full of crazy drivers, experience humorous home renovation mishaps, and even witness a goat race. Particularly delightful are the author’s insights into the appropriate number of cheek kisses (which must be carefully calculated based on several variables) and France’s “silent vocabulary” of gesticulations — leaving the author convinced that “people get quite enough physical exercise over the course of a ten-minute chat.”
The author also pays attention to “France’s favorite ritual” (aka mealtime). You’ll learn of truffle mushroom hunts and the pigs used to locate them. And you’ll meet the restaurant proprietors and chefs who care for the region’s “serious stomachs.”
Next stop for travel books: 1920s India. Navigate the streets and cultural nuances of historic Bombay, a time when Parsi, Hindi, Muslim, and British families lived side-by-side. Sometimes not so harmoniously. Author Sujata Massey reveals both the tension and beauty of living in the midst of such a combination of cultures. Her story also offers an intriguing peek into the private lives of women practicing purdah (the custom of seclusion followed by some Muslim and Hindi women). Did we mention the food? Expect delicious descriptions of fried dahitra biscuits soaked in rose syrup and tangy tamarind chicken curry.
In one way or another, the story’s entire cast of women strive to achieve a sense of freedom — most of all the heroine Perveen Mistry, who must sidestep the cages society tries to trap her in. She commits scandalous acts like holding hands with a boy in public, venturing out at night without a chaperone, and working as the city’s first lady solicitor in her father’s law office. As a matter of fact, this larger-than-life lady is loosely inspired by the historical Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first woman lawyer.
Enter into the pages of The Kite Runner and join two young boys in Kabul during the Afghanistan monarchy. Prepare to attend the annual kite-fighting tournament, a thrilling competition where kite strings are covered in broken glass and kids attempt to sever their opponents’ lines, while others compete to chase down the falling kites.
Though this book might be your first encounter with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the ‘80s, the mass exodus, and the rise of the Taliban regime, the book’s glue is universal, exploring the ties of family and friends like family. Prepare for an intense, but stunning read. There will be gritty scenes involving several kinds of trauma. But hang in there until the end. As powerful as it is humanizing, The Kite Runner cultivates themes of redemption and overcoming cowardice with bravery. It hasn’t sold over eight million copies for nothing.
How about a slice of life from Central Malawi? Meet William Kamkwamba, a real-life inventor who reflects on his childhood in Wimbe. Through his story, you will encounter farmers who roll up their sleeves and work the land, villages governed by chiefs in business suits, and tight knit families who sacrifice everything for each other.
Our narrator, young William, seems to understand we are outsiders to life in Malawi, so he frequently pauses to explain societal norms to give us a better understanding of his world. Expect him to address some pretty tough issues — his country’s grim experiences with crippling drought, his fight for an education, and the region’s clash between superstition and science — but if you can embrace the discomfort as a chance to learn, these insights are priceless. Balancing the bleaker moments are plenty of depictions of childhood eagerness. Young William’s drive to test and understand everything is unrivaled!
Interested in bonding with a protagonist that shares your wanderlust? You’ve got to meet Santiago. This likable Andalusian shepherd is on a quest for treasure and it carries him across the grassy hills of Spain, through the drifting desert sands of the Sahara, and along the pyramids of Egypt.
Though the storyline might seem simple in nature, the book and its characters are quite introspective. A lifelong learner, Santiago gains knowledge from every new place, experience, setback, and unexpected blessing he encounters along the way. If you’re a seeker — inwards and outwards — this reflective story is absolutely for you.
A Few Runners-Up for Travel Books:
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Botswana)
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters (India)
The Likeness (Ireland)
Love and Gelato (Italy)
The Colossus of Maroussi (Greece)
Peony in Love (China)
Convenience Store Woman (Japan)
Gods of Jade and Shadow (Mexico)
Johanna Harlow is an arts and culture journalist for several publications. She enjoys dipping her toes into worlds different from her own by interviewing everyone from cinematographers to photographers, architects to actors, lyricists to muralists. She is also a screenwriter and lives in California’s sunny Bay Area.