Top 5 Books For Travelers: A Guide to Making Your Pack Literally Heavier

Sunday, January 10, 2010

To us travelers who explore the world through books as well as places, our packs are always a few pounds heavier. If you are at all like me, you have asked yourself, “Why the French Revolution am I carrying ten books with me? I cannot carry my ridiculously heavy pack one step further. My body hurts. Ouch! I must lie down. I don’t care if this is a busy highway, I will lie down here.”

We discover new places and ideas in books and in new places we discover books. At books exchanges we peruse bland romance novels and 1980s computer operation manuals looking for hidden gems left by the last person passing through. The worn pages often contain little notes or enigmatic messages left by their previous owners.

On rare instances, they contain more of their previous owners than we want. I am still left to wonder why page 116 of my copy of Hemingway’s A Movable Feast that I picked up in San Pedro, Chile, was covered in blood. Nose bleed? Literary discussion turned violent? Epic battle between pushy English teacher and pig-headed student? I probably don’t want to know.

To add to your packing list, I have amassed five must read books for travelers. These books are worth weighing down your already overweight packs. Sure they’ll add some extra aches and pains, but they’re worth it.

Note: As I write this list on the tray table of an airplane, I can see a young woman across the aisle from me reading from her Kindle. Since this may one day be the new norm for travelers to carry their books,  put me down as saying, “When I was your age, The Brothers Karamazov weighed 10 pounds! And we had to climb Machu Picchu with four copies of it in our pack!”

Five Books For the Open Road

5. Seven Years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer

Unless Brad Pitt really does it for you, the book gives much more than the movie. From detailed accounts of nearly freezing to death, hunger, mountain climbing, road bandits, imprisonment, escape, imprisonment again, escape again; read this book. It provides an account of the Tibet that used to be. It is sometimes sad to see what has been lost, but often heartening, and as soon as you close it you will check Expedia for tickets to Tibet.

4. On the Road – Jack Kerouac

This book has been inspiring decades of intrepid hearts to break free from gray cubical walls to head to, well, anywhere. With thumbs pointed towards the sky, Jack Kerouac writes fiction that from most biographical accounts, pretty much was all true (the advantage of doing this is that a writer never risks getting kicked out of Oprah’s book club when reality is brushed with a touch of imagination). The book takes readers from the East Coast to the West and everywhere in between. Through vivid characters it approaches philosophical questions seeking answers to the meaning of life and how best to live it.

3. The American Best Travel Writing Anthology – Jason Wilson (series editor)

This annually released anthology contains pieces from the mass-market travel writing to the little guy’s blog. Though the word “best” always leaves some people wanting proof of objectivity, the editor strives to be fair and the result is always a good read for the road.

2. The Beach –  Alex Garland

Starting in questionable hostels with an eclectic cast of international characters, this is the book for backpackers searching for paradise. It is the book all of us with never finished manuscripts collecting digital dust on our computer hard drive wish we had written. It explores the basic traveler oxymoron: tourists trying to avoid places filled with tourists. We all want to find paradise, but paradise, once it is found, quickly becomes every other place.

1. Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism – Thomas Kohnstamm

This recently released book about the struggles of travel writing is for anyone who calls their Lonely Planet, “The Bible.” Battling through self doubts, waning finances, wanton temptations, and professional ethics, the author shows, often in hilarious detail, just how the information goes from a Cuba Libre stained Moleskine notebook to the pages of your guide book.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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  • Brit

    If you are looking to go to Patagonia, in either Chile or Argentina, I would recommend In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin. Raw and simple with a little embellishment here and there.

  • I'd also add "West with the Night" to the list (if you were cranking it up to 11 that is).

  • This Kerouac-obsessed book was written specifically to take on the road:

    • Nice suggestion, I'd never heard of the book before. It's going on my wish list.

      I also like Amazon's description: "The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions, by Rick Dale, brings the wit and wisdom of the beat generation, and its titular head, Jack Kerouac, into contemporary application through one hundred daily suggestions on how to deal with everything from sex to parking your car." Just what I need.

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