Travel writing today can be nearly about anything — from conventional accounts of travels to far flung places to walking (or cycling) from one city to another city to revisiting your own neighbourhood. One unusual travel book called Bad Trips is about the worst journeys ever taken by writers! Travel seems to be not just about launching an exploration outside but making inward journeys as well.
The genre is so rich now with dozens of titles vying for the place of the most essential travel writing published so far that I'm safer picking five and calling them my favourites than defining them as the five most essential. For me, yes, they are the five most essential! I've also included a companion list of ten other classics for further reading.
The Great Railway Bazaar
Which of us can resist a train journey? Well, I can. Especially if it is on our Indian trains which, apart from being crowded and noisy, can also be enormously delayed or even get stranded. But it also depends on the train and the destination. What if it is the Rajdhani express? Or the fabled Orient Express chugging through Europe and Asia? Count me in.
The famous travel writer Paul Theroux understood the pleasures of such exotic train journeys and wrote the definitive travel book; the book that, along with Pico Iyer's Video Nights in Kathmandu galvanised travel writing and made it popular overnight. “The Great Railway Bazaar” (five stars for the title itself) was the first modern travel book I read and since then I have gone back to it many times, and still found it pleasurable, and not in the least dated. Theroux is opinionated and this makes taking the journey with him, meeting his fellow passengers, an enjoyable and instructive ride. Theroux showed that travel writing is equally about people as they are about places.
The Snow Leopard
A determined writer and a zoologist hike 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayas in search of spotting a snow leopard, a big cat so rarely sighted by humans that it has taken mythical proportions. Will these two intrepid explorers be the lucky ones? Like all good travel books, this is more about the journey, the quest, than about arriving or discovery. Along the way they encounter spectacular forms of nature, and other creatures of this region. The sheer mystical beauty of the Himalayas has never been more precisely and profoundly described than by Peter Matthiessen, a prodigiously gifted writer and seeker. “The Snow Leopard” has become a classic of not just nature writing but spiritual writing as well for the intricate and sophisticated way it weaves in meditation on Buddhist themes as the expedition becomes more and more breathtaking.
India: A Million Mutinies
I chose this as the definitive V.S. Naipaul book on India rather than “An Area of Darkness India: A Wounded Civilization” because this is the more considered, compassionate and wide ranging book on his lifelong passion, India as experienced and understood by an expatriate voice. In this book he gives voice to a kaleidoscope of other voices. His earlier two books on India redefined modern travelogue writing and how we look at ourselves, and “India: A Million Mutinies” deepens those themes but with the richer advantage of several trips behind him now, allowing Naipaul to write on his old native country with prescient insight on “a nation caught between the rush of modernity and the power of tradition.”
Video Nights in Kathmandu
Pico Iyer is the most widely read and popular writer of travel books. He is also its wisest. He reinvented the genre with this groundbreaking book, a series of essays on Asia unlike any written before.
Most reporting on the Far East had come from Western travel writers, and Pico Iyer introduced a fresh voice, perspective and sensibility - an original combination of an Oxford educated mind with an Asian heart.
Most of all it was deeply empathetic, warm, and refreshingly Eastern. Pico didn't shy away from describing how comical and absurd and kitschy things seemed in Nepal, China, India and Thailand. And yet, as partly an insider, he cast a compassionate eye and ear that had been missing in writing on Asia.
His beautiful writing can also be found in his other classic works of travel writing: “The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, Sun After Dark, and Falling Off the Map”.
Into the Wild
A true story of a young English graduate who gave up studies and family to go live in the Alaskan wilderness. He was inspired by Tolstoy's ideas of renunciation and the adventure stories of Jack London. Jon Krakauer best known for his book, “Into Thin Air”, about a cliffhanging, perilous climb to Mount Everest, looks at a different kind of travel narrative here: an idealistic student wanting to live out his ideas rather than just living vicariously through his textbooks. Chris McCandless, an intelligent and intense boy from a rich American family decided to backpack through the American wilderness. “Into The Wild” investigates why someone like Chris who had everything going for him –nice parents, beautiful girlfriend, a bright future – would be compelled to chuck it all up for an idea he read about in a book.
The Songlines: Bruce Chatwin
Venice: Jan Morris
The Lost City of Z: David Grann
Iron and Silk: Mark Salzman
Winter in Arabia: Freya Stark
Maximum City: Suketu Mehta
City of Djinns: William Dalrymple
Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Pankaj Mishra
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Hunter S. Thompson
Eat, Pray, Love: Elizabeth Gilbert
Keywords: travel writing