A good author should always suffer for his or her art. Well, the best travel writers suffer more than most, so perhaps that’s why their books are so memorable. A journey without problems is a dull one and this selection of essential travel writing details obstacles like a boat sinking in 60 seconds in the middle of the ocean and a country on the brink of civil war. When a book is called In the Land of White Death then you know the author faced more problems than missing a bus.
Although drama is always close at hand for a committed traveller, writers now face the dilemma that no path has been left untrodden. Victorian and Edwardian travellers had a vast choice of countries to visit and describe. Today, the Lonely Planet writers have already been there and written about that, and yet travel writing remains a vibrant genre.
The best travel writers go beyond vivid descriptions of their destinations. They study modes of travel and their fellow travellers. They also seem drawn to understanding the history of their journey and the written legacy of previous travellers.
This selection details journeys by car, train, boat (and lifeboat), horseback and on foot. In fact, journeys by Shanks’ pony have always been important to travel writers because they see so much while on foot. Nobody seems to write about air travel these days and who can blame them.
Some of these journeys took years, other a few weeks such as Hemingway’s safari in Green Hills of Africa. Some are clandestine like Richard Burton’s historic pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise. Some are highly organised and others a shambles such as Graham Greene’s trip to Liberia in 1935. We also include William S. Burroughs’ book about his journey into the Amazon jungle as a magnificent anti-travel book as he detests travel and also his destination, and simply craves a rare Amazonian drug. You also have to love a book describing how Italian soldiers break out of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp so they can climb a mountain.
Although not on this list because it’s fiction, we also recommend The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. It’s a special book about a walking tour of Norfolk that stretches the travel genre to its limit.