Ten Writers On The Travel Book That Shaped Their Creative Life

Stack up on your 2024 reading list with these timeless classics chosen by some of our favourite contemporary writers
Readers in Lisbon
Readers in LisbonFlickr: Pietro Faccioli

We've got your 2024 reading list covered with a special touch—handpicked classics by some of today's beloved writers. From poignant narratives to enchanting adventures, these carefully selected gems promise a delightful escape and a journey through the depths of human experience. So, cosy up with a cup of your favourite beverage and let the magic of literature transport you:

Full Tilt By Dervla Murphy
Chosen By Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

My favourite travel book is Full Tilt by the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy. It's an account of her 1963 bicycle ride from Ireland to Delhi. Setting off in January during one of Europe's coldest winters, the indomitable Murphy endures blizzards and wolves, fighting off the latter with a pistol she had been trained to use by the Irish police.

Dervla Murphy cycling in Barcelona
Dervla Murphy cycling in BarcelonaWikimedia Commons: © Dervla Murphy, Eland Books

In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, she bravely pedals her faithful steed, Rozinante, across scorching deserts and barren mountains, enduring it all with characteristic fortitude and good humour. In Pakistan, Dervla portrays a way of life seemingly unchanged for centuries. Not only is her writing exemplary but there's a freshness to the book, and a sense that she was cycling through a world that would soon vanish. The whole journey cost just GBP 64—what a contrast to the heavily-sponsored long-distance cyclists of today.

Dervla is everything a travel writer should be: interesting, interested, observant, humorous, compassionate, brave, and endearingly humble. She was still writing before her death in 2022 and I can't think of a more inspiring woman or travel writer.

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent's latest book is Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains.

The Places In Between By Rory Stewart
Chosen By Sarah Waters 

My favourite travelogue is The Places in Between. Rory Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan and wrote it a few years ago. It is a really great, sensitive, and fascinating account of the country, and his experiences of being there as a traveller. He has a lot of sensitivity to the landscape, the physical setting, the shifting culture, and the communities he is encountering. It is interesting for what it says about him, his odd status in Afghanistan as a white British guy, his interactions with the people he meets along the way, and the amazing landscape.

Rory Stewart in a London bookstore
Rory Stewart in a London bookstoreWikimedia Commons: Edwardx

There's a detail in the book which I love when a dog accompanies him for a while during his walks. Stewart's narrative is political in the broadest possible sense because he is extremely respectful of the complexity of Afghan history. He's very thoughtful about the nuances of the society that he comes across and the picture he paints isn't all black and white. I really enjoyed that about it.

Sarah Waters is a Booker Prize-nominated writer whose novels include Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.

The Hill Of Devi By E.M. Forster
Chosen By Damon Galgut

E.M. Forster's account of his Indian travels is a fabulous account of India at a particular time. The Avenger edition in particular contains an account of Forster's intimate life at the Maharaja's place in Dewas where he was a private secretary, which is not in any other edition of the book. It's quite a revelation about the the palace and about Forster's own shenanigans so it's worth tracking down. Forster made three trips to India, but the two trips that are covered in that book sort of bookend the writing of A Passage to India.

A portrait of E.M. Forster by Roger Fry
A portrait of E.M. Forster by Roger FryWikimedia Commons: Roger Fry

His first visit here was in 1912 for six months, the second in 1922 for a whole year. It was at the height of the British Raj so it's loaded with all kinds of rather horrible political associations but Forster was an outsider to the Raj while also being an insider. He kept a very detailed journal of his travels on his first trip and it's just full of lovely little anecdotes and insights.

On his second visit, although he was staying more or less in one place, he offered a rich insight into the very unreal world of a princely state and how it worked. I spent a lot of time laughing at what he was describing because it's so weird, and so very British and very Indian at the same time. Much of what he recounts feels very contemporary and for all those reasons I really love the book.

Damon Galgut is a novelist and playwright whose books include the Booker Prize-winning The Promise.

American Notes For General Circulation By Charles Dickens
Chosen by Joanna Rakoff 

I read Charles Dickens's sparkling American Notes for General Circulation when I was a student in London. As my graduate programme at the University College London was on Anglo-American literature, we had to read a lot of novels that were written by Americans but set in London, and plenty of memoirs and essays as well. More often than not, these explored the relationship between England and America through the ages. Some of my other favourite travelogues come from that.

A portrait of novelist Charles Dickens
A portrait of novelist Charles DickensWikimedia Commons

I don't know whether Dickens' account of America is widely read or not, but it's a hilarious one and quite wonderful. He is disdainful and baffled in turn, and also exhausted by all the adulation. It was obviously written a long time ago, but what's fascinating is the extent to which Dickens' observations about America still hold true.

There are such wonderful details in it—he eats steak and can't understand why there's so much pepper on it. It's full of funny observations like that, and great characters.

Joanna Rakoff is an award-winning author, columnist, and publisher whose latest book is My Salinger Year.

Vie Et Voyages By Alexandra David-Néel
Chosen By Amruta Patil

Ahead of her time, fearless, and remarkable, Alexandra David-Néel has been on my mind and bookshelf for the longest time. She wrote 30-odd books in 101 years—she was born in 1868 and died in 1969—on philosophy, the occult, her practice as a tantric lama, the landscape of the Himalayas, Tibet, and much more. Most of her oeuvre may be classified as travel writing so it was ripe picking.

David-Néel's work emerged not out of academia and collated bookish knowledge but out of personal journeys made through her adult life. David-Néel writes those rarest of travelogues—the sort that begins well before the traveller has shut the doors of her house—and is written only at the very end of a robustly lived life. For David-Néel, life was a series of ambitious journeys punctuated by a few reluctant pit stops, during which she wrote ceaselessly while planning her next voyage.

A photograph of Alexandra David-Néel
A photograph of Alexandra David-NéelWikimedia Commons: Preus museum

With unmatched tenacity, luck, the willingness to break rules, and (in no small measure) the ability to beguile and convince men who could be enablers, David-Néel travelled all over and gained access to spaces that few people, especially white folks or women, had ever reached. Considering just how violently these spaces would be marked by time and politics, chroniclers such as David-Néel are the last authentic, personal record that remains.

Amruta Patil is a writer and a painter whose books include the graphic novels Kari and Aranyaka.

The Book Of Duarte Barbosa: An Account Of The Countries Bordering On The Indian Ocean And Their Inhabitants By Duarte Barbosa
Chosen By Anita Nair

I have been devouring travel books ever since I first chanced upon Paul Theroux when I was 13. Theroux's point of view was for many years my yardstick of measuring a travel book. But, in recent times I have been reading accounts of travellers in the 16th-17th centuries and I am stumped for choice between the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa, the French Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, and the Dutch Philippus Baldaeus.

One a clerk, the other a diamond merchant, and the third a man of the cloth, these were travellers who travelled for a reason and yet, in them, the call to travel preceded purpose. Even the names of their books—like The Book of Duarte Barbosa—have a certain heft. Of these, perhaps Barbosa is my all-time favourite.

View of the fort of Kochi c.1800
View of the fort of Kochi c.1800Wikimedia Commons

He travelled to Kerala and, unlike many travellers, studied the language. Hence, his observations of the place and its people are not presumptions coloured by miscomprehension. If I am looking for time travel in the reverse, it is Barbosa I would reach out to.

Anita Nair's latest novels are Muezza and Baby Jaan and Eating Wasps.

The Snow Leopard By Peter Matthiessen
Chosen By Isabella Tree

On occasion you read a book that you sense has altered your DNA. For me this was Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. It's a tale about Matthiessen's expedition with a naturalist friend to the remote, mountainous region of Dolpo in northwest Nepal near the border of Tibet, shortly after his wife died from cancer. One of the aims of their trip is to record the activities and habitat of the endangered snow leopard.

This high-octane adventure threaded with wonderful descriptions of natural history would alone have made for marvellous reading. But what emerges instead is something far more courageous and profound: an exploration into the nature of things and their transience, presence and absence, friendship, memory, acceptance, and longing.

A male snow leopard
A male snow leopardWikimedia Commons: Tambako The Jaguar

It's almost impossible to write convincingly about the intangible, or to express genuine intimations of mystery and otherness, but Matthiessen does this with such a light touch, and in such uplifting prose, that you feel like you're soaring above those very mountain peaks that persistently, ominously, shadow his journey. Though he comes close he never sees a snow leopard. And this, in a way, is the key to this hauntingly beautiful book.

Isabella Tree is a travel writer and conservationist whose latest book is Wilding: How to Bring Wildlife Back - An Illustrated Guide.

The Odyssey By Homer
Chosen By Sam Miller

I'm not quite sure how to define a travelogue but my favourite journey book is The Odyssey—one of the first books ever in the world. I read it as a teenager because we were being instructed to at school and write essays on it. That's a good way of turning anyone off a book and I didn't like it then. But about ten years ago, I came across a translation of it by the American poet Robert Fagles.

The beginning of The Odyssey
The beginning of The OdysseyWikimedia Commons: Bibi Saint-Pol

There's something about the way Homer's Greek is translated by Fagles that conveys a sense of journey in a way that I think is miraculous. He moves around the Meditteranean so much in the poem and in a way that almost seems impossible to achieve. Not only does he tells the story beautifully but his poetry gives you a real sense of movement and of travel.

Sam Miller is an author and a journalist whose latest book is Migrants: The Story of Us All.

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim's Progress By Mark Twain
Chosen By Zac O'Yeah

As a travel writer, I have a long-lasting love affair with one particular travelogue, namely The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. To be honest, I wasn't particularly interested in Twain when I picked it up at the Strand Bookstore in New York City some 20 years ago, at a point when I myself was rather innocent about being abroad. I just kind of thought that I should read at least one book by the most famous American writer, and the title sounded perfect.

Mark Twain
Mark TwainWikimedia Commons

Ostensibly, Twain tells us the story of the first pleasure cruise in 1867 by ship from the New World to the Old (already a hilarious prospect)—a great excursion that included the World Exhibition in Paris and holy places like Jerusalem.

Travelling as a correspondent for an American newspaper, he filled the book with stuff that perhaps was unprintable in the press, comic episodes such as gate-crashing the Acropolis in Athens at night, and recording the places around the Mediterranean with a sharp eye—all this in a way that remains fresh almost 150 years later. Whenever I feel doubts about my job, I open up the book and find inspiration in Twain's boundless energy.

Zac O'Yeah is a writer and columnist whose latest book is Digesting India.

Amrita Kumbher Sandhane By Samaresh Basu
Chosen By Arunava Sinha

For me, a travelogue is a miracle when it takes me to a place I will never make it to. This need not be a specific configuration of latitude and longitude alone, but a state of mind combined with geography and history. This is the place I was transported to by Samaresh Basu's epic travel book Amrita Kumbher Sandhane (In Search of the Nectar Pot), which he wrote under the pseudonym of Kalkut.

Samaresh Basu with his spouse
Samaresh Basu with his spouseFlickr: bangalnama2

Basu would often leave Calcutta to set off on a journey across a part of India he had never been to. Amrita Kumbher Sandhane is the outcome of his visit to the Kumbh Mela. The novelist's sensibility in Basu turns the book into a sequence of dramatic events, bringing together people from every corner of India—mostly the poor and the oppressed, whom Basu identified with most in his writings.

A committed Leftist, he examines the momentous display of belief through the analytical scepticism of his sociopolitical beliefs, and offers a startling, unique, and deeply moving human document that is almost accidentally a travelogue.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern, and contemporary Bengali fiction into English, and English fiction, non-fiction, and poetry into Bengali. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller