Eight Books You Shouldn’t Travel Without

Lists: Build bigger back muscles! Get more out of every trip! Quasi-Luddite Frank Bures explains.

04.08.09 | 9:27 AM ET


It happens every time: Within a few hours of buying plane tickets, I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves, fantasizing, calculating and trying to decide exactly which books I’m going to bring on my trip. Inevitably, I end up with a tower of titles that would be tough for Robinson Crusoe to plow through. “War and Peace”? Sure! “Infinite Jest”? No problem! “Don Quixote”? Should be able to knock that one off.

Somehow, I forget that I actually have to do something when I get where I’m going, that the plane ride will end, and that I won’t have time to read everything I’ve always wanted to read. It’s a fantasy, a dream that I am escaping the life where I never make it through my to-read pile. And it’s a fantasy partly fueled by a love of that space Jonathan Franzen called “enforced transition zones” where the outside world is cut off and you have no choice but to read.

Eventually, though, reality sets in, and I put several pounds of books back onto my shelves. I know from years of coming back with too many books unopened, half-read or discarded along the way that I can’t bring everything I want. And being a low-tech, quasi-Luddite traveler, I view the Kindle as being one more gadget to break or lose or have stolen. (Besides, bringing a digitized Library of Congress is not the point. Bringing some books to really read is.) So I’ve developed a system for weeding out wishes from needs. For those of you like me who can’t quite choose which books to bring and which to leave behind—and who have no hope of ever traveling light—consider my list of the eight kinds of books I either bring along on my trip, or buy along the way.

Book 1: Escape

I’m not a huge fan of escapist literature, but when you are overwhelmed by foreignness, the experience can be pure bliss and sometimes can save your sanity. I tend to lean toward science fiction, because the created worlds lend themselves to getting lost.

When I landed in Tanzania as a young teacher, I burned through Dune. I did the same with Snow Crash while I was living in Southern Thailand. A good mystery like The Name of the Rose or Motherless Brooklyn can work just as well.

Book 2: History

You should, I believe, know whereof you travel. And while I’m not saying you should haul along a giant history tome, I think something that gives you the backstory to the place you’re traveling to is essential. This could be combined with Book 3, or it could be a historical novel. Or it could be a local history book you pick up when you get there. (I usually make a beeline for the local bookstore wherever I land.)

Book 3: Guidebook

A necessity. Which brand you pick depends on your taste, and some guidebooks are better for certain areas. I tend to like Bradt Guides (to places you actually need them like Congo, Nigeria and Turkmenistan), though I also enjoy Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. I don’t think the internet or mobile devices will replace these, because when the power goes out, when you drop your bag, when you’re standing at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, the book in your hand will always be superior. Just remember, it is a guidebook, not a Guide Bible.

Book 4: Local Lit

I always like to try to read some local literature, whether it’s by a writer who moved away and now resides in some American creative writing program or who never left their home country. The stories people tell about themselves are invaluable to expanding your view of a place. You may want to get this book when you arrive.

Book 5: Anthology/Short Stories

Sometimes, you don’t quite know what you’ll be in the mood for, and a good anthology can be the perfect answer to this conundrum. I particularly recommend an anthology if you are going to be away for a long time, be it short stories, like The Art of the Story, or nonfiction like the New Kings of Nonfiction, or Esquire’s Big Book of Great Writing, or some mix, like the Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms. Otherwise one of the greatest poetry anthologies is Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things.

Book 6: Phrase Book/Dictionary

I’m a huge fan of making a fool of myself trying to speak the local language. It’s not so much about functionality as respect, or just acknowledging you are a guest in someone else’s country. This may not be appreciated in major tourism centers, but the farther off the path you get, the more it will be. Fortunately, these books are often small. I’ve found Lonely Planet phrase books to be more useful than Berlitz, but this can vary from language to language.

Book 7: Nostalgia

There is no force on Earth more powerful than nostalgia, and if you are going to be away for a long time, I think you should treat yourself to something that plays into a little homesickness, something that brings home to wherever you find yourself, something like Population 485, or if you want something a little more syllabus-ish, take a classic like Tom Sawyer, or To Kill a Mockingbird

Book 8: Travel Writing

This is mainly a category for writers, but I think it’s crucial to bring along some great travel writing or narrative nonfiction to remind yourself to be on the job. Better still if you can find something about the place you are going written by a knowledgeable and sympathetic outsider. Also, the Granta travel writing antholgies or “The Best American Travel Writing” series are good. And you can’t lose with some Bill Bryson or Tim Cahill to lighten the mood. I’d also recommend a relatively unknown book called The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah.

Think you can keep it at eight? You think these categories are bogus? Others I missed? Post a comment.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

42 Comments for Eight Books You Shouldn’t Travel Without

wandermom 04.08.09 | 11:26 AM ET

This is a great article!
I too have returned from many trips only to offload the un-read books onto my bookshelf - where many are still languishing unread.
But, having taken a number of trips in the past 12 months with my Kindle, I’m becoming convinced that e-book readers will become a traveler’s necessity in time.

Wanderluster 04.08.09 | 11:46 AM ET

I’m with WanderMom. I love to read while I’m traveling and my Sony Digital Reader has become invaluable in cutting down on pounds of books!

Joel Carillet 04.08.09 | 2:12 PM ET

I like your list, Frank, particularly #s 2, 4, and 8.

I’ve read almost every book I’ve taken on a trip, and it is a pleasure to have those books on my bookshelf (or, more accurately since I don’t really have a home, in a box) where I can flip through them again, see what I underlined and where I made notes, rediscover what ancient ticket stub-turned-bookmark is tucked away inside.  I once set off on a year-long trip through Asia with 21 books in my backpack (not just because I’m a nerd but because I was doing research).  I think it was largely this act of reading-while-backpacking that landed me in a Bangkok hospital three years later for surgery on a severely herniated disc.  I will always travel with a book to read—I’m skeptical of the Kindle, simply because I like to write in my books—but, on the advice of my surgeon, will also keep the number in the single digits from now on.

sean 04.08.09 | 2:19 PM ET

For excellent collections of fine travel writing, redolent of place, you are forgetting Travelers’ Tales
http://www.travelerstales.com. With over 100 travel and travel related books published, we are one of the main purveyors of good travel literature

Jenny 04.08.09 | 2:42 PM ET

Great article, Frank - and ,being a former bookseller (and very active wanderer), close to my heart.
I have been lucky in finding bookstores all over the world that had used books (relinquished by travelers trying to lighten their loads) - it’s so cool to come across titles that fit the place you are in at the time. I am a super-fan of #8 on your list - Travel Literature is my favorite - for the sense of place they describe. Here are a few titles I have found on dusty foreign bookshelves that had me grinning from ear to ear at my good luck in having found them - long live books (the kind with pages!):

Perfume Dreams/Andrew Lam (found in Hue Vietnam)
Cook’s Tour/Anthony Bourdain (found in Railay Peninsula, Thailand)
Take Big Bites/Linda Ellerbee (found in Hong Kong)
A Fez of the Heart/Jeremy Seal (found in Istanbul)

Carissa Wodehouse 04.08.09 | 4:08 PM ET

I’ve got some favorites, mostly poetry for the bleary-eyed flight when I’m too far gone to follow plot but in just the right state of mind to daydream.

One of the coolest things I’ve discovered is the joy in taking a crappy paperback along with the intention of handing it off. This was introduced to me in Thailand, where a fellow traveller handed me Angela’s Ashes. On the title page was a list of all the people who had read it, where they were from and where they had been. It was a well-travelled book, and I found comfort knowing that other people were in the same places I was going, experiencing the same story. When I finished it, I wrote my name, home country, and locations where I’d read it, and left it on a bench in a traveler’s cafe.

Vera Marie Badertscher 04.08.09 | 11:21 PM ET

This is a subject very close to my heart—books and travel. Great article, and I agree with your choices. On #2, History of a place is essential for me, and since history books are hefty, I love the series of “A Traveler’s History of_______”  I have found Italy, Greece,Ireland and other countries I traveled to. The very slim books, packed with info, are published by Interlink.
I also have found good books along the way.  For example, in Crete I bought a book I had not heard of before, The Villa Ariadne, by Dilys Powell, about the excavations at Knossos. And my husband found The Cretan Runner, a memoir of one of the mountain fighters during WWII.
And thanks to those who suggested books.  Adding to my wish list.

Frank 04.09.09 | 10:07 AM ET

Thanks, Sean. You’re right: The Traveler Tales books are excellent to read on the road—especially Jen Leo’s humor series. And you can usually find them in bookstores and hostels across the world. 

As for you digital folks, may the force be with you.  I’ll always be a paper man, no matter how heavy it is.

tom swick 04.09.09 | 11:00 AM ET

May I subversively suggest that you CAN lose with some Bill Bryson? If, for example, you take “In a Sunburned Country” to Australia. You’ll read all about the author’s meals alone, his solitary walks, his visits to provincial museums (where, as we all know, everything’s happening). All travel writers eat a depressingly large number of meals by themselves; most of us spare our readers and don’t write about them. As a glimpse into the modus operandi of a travel writer, “In a Sunburned Country”  is rather revealing. As a travel book, it’s a disappointment.

R. Todd Felton 04.09.09 | 11:06 AM ET

May I also suggest Roaring Forties Press books?  They bridge the local lit, guidebook, history by being literary and artistic guidebooks to the artists who lived in that location.  I would of course suggest the two by me, A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England and A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival, but the entire series is actually really great.

On a separate note, I love Carissa Wodehouse’s suggestion of bringing something to hand off.  I will go put a book in my bag for my next trip!

Todd Felton

laurie 04.09.09 | 11:21 AM ET

love this.  i bring cheap paperbacks of books i want to read, and leave them behind when i’m done…. in the pouches of airplanes, in hotel rooms, in cafes.

last year an irish woman i know found a copy of “running a hotel on the roof of the world,” alec le seuer’s book about working at the tibet holiday inn. she found it tucked into the pouch of the seat in front of her on a flight to germany.  it still had a boarding card tucked inside, from katmandu airline.

so she took it, read it, and mailed it to me here in minneosta. and when i was done i mailed it to a friend in canada, who promised to mail it on.  i have no idea where it is now, but maybe it’ll make its way back to tibet….

Ben 04.09.09 | 1:53 PM ET

As a former reference editor, I’ll add my two cents to Frank’s great advice. First, if you have a working knowledge of a foreign language, skip the phrasebook and go with a small dictionary instead. Compare the 3,500 vocabulary words in Lonely Planet’s Spanish Phrasebook ($8.99) to Webster’s New World Pocket Spanish Dictionary ($6.99) with ten times as many definitions. 

And second, if you’re going to spend any length of time abroad, consider packing a lightweight road atlas or at the very least, a decent map. I’ve often had trouble finding a good map while traveling and honestly, no matter where you’re going, knowing is (ahem) half the battle. Randomly picking one example: Collins, Frommer’s, and AAA each publish a road atlas of Europe.

pelu awofeso 04.10.09 | 5:18 PM ET

I am at the moment on a pan-Nigeria tour. I have carried Paul Theroux’s ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania’ with me from day one. Though the book is all about a world far removed from (West) Africa, I find that it inspires my own sense of walkabout. And Just this afternoon while travelling in my seventh state on the tour (Nigeria has 37 in all), I chanced on two CNN traveller magazines at a remote market (where I had gone to tahe some photographs), bound up to be sold as wrapping paper for commodities. I bought them immediately.

giopalatucci 04.10.09 | 5:49 PM ET

I loved this article. I always bring a tote bag full of books with me whenever I travel! Thanks for your insight. Check out which books I’d take with me: http://giovannapalatucci.weebly.com/2/post/2009/04/eight-books.html

Richard Lawrence 04.11.09 | 9:53 AM ET

I enjoyed this article very much, thanks.  One category of book I take is ‘a book you’ve already read but want to read again’, because you know you’ll find something new in it, or rediscover something you relished before.  Bruce Chatwin’s books belong to this category for me, especially ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’ , and W.G. Sebald’s books, especially The Rings of Saturn.  They throw up new glimpses, surprises and knowledge, on second and third readings.  So I take a book like this in case all else fails.

Jerry Moore 04.11.09 | 10:21 AM ET

In 1981 I left for a six-month archaeological expedition in South America and my luggage was limited to 20 kgs.  Books had to be chosen carefully, weighed for more than bulk.  I chose books that would transport and inform.  A Spanish-English dictionary, the (then-new) “Next Whole Earth Catalogue.” Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Twain’s “Roughing It.” Shakespeare and Richard Farina’s “Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me” (I was younger then.) 
So after long days of digging in the Peruvian desert and scraping away time, I escaped into the refuge of these books.  They are on the shelves of my office where I am writing this right now.  They began as texts and became travel companions.

Jeff 04.11.09 | 12:23 PM ET

I’m heading on a trip next month and the last thing I’m bringing with me is a book.  I can read at home.  I respect your right to read but why people would read on vacation is something I don’t understand.  I would never travel halfway across the world to do something I can do in my living room!

Kristine Christlieb 04.11.09 | 5:03 PM ET

I think a missing category might be humor.  I love Nora Ephron and har harred all the way to Paris reading I Feel Bad about My Neck.

u-roy 04.11.09 | 8:52 PM ET

Agree with a previous poster about including Humor and suggest it take the place of History, a subject best reflected upon when encumbered by sobriety. I suggest SJ Perelman, Roth’s “Our Gang”, Hunter Thompson or Flann O’Brien…. But why take eight books when one cheap copy of “Finnegan’s Wake” will do?  You will never lack something to read unless you finish the book, in which case you’ll have bragging rights if you find someone to listen. In any event, you don’t need a bookmark as you can pick up the story anywhere. Read it aloud if traveling alone. Make sure to leave notes, underline the best parts and leave the book in a public place before coming home.

Sean Paul Kelley 04.12.09 | 5:10 AM ET

The best travel quote ever:

“If I were rich enough to endow a prize to the sensible traveler: $10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another $10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey. He may or may not be naturally observant. But at least he would use what eyes he had…
-Robert Byron.”

Reading and travel are essential and through all my travels I seem, like you, to have created a very similar list. Thanks for bringing it to life.

Grizzly Bear Mom 04.12.09 | 7:59 AM ET

I travel with a Rick Steve’s guidebook.  In Paris I met an Indian artist couple who were working in ?the U.A.E.?  They were looking for a hotel room.  I ripped out the loding page of the book and gave it to them, to their delight and surprise of the man behind the counter.  The other book I bring in my journal so I can write down my memories, like making jokes with a Parisian, who get what I was saying.  I want to keep happy memories of connecting with people.

Kevin S. 04.12.09 | 5:24 PM ET

Spare us the condescension contained in your reference to “escapist” literature, please. The very concept is idiotic (cf. Tolkien), and *Dune* has more intellectual heft than much of the more “serious” literature you so earnestly recommend

Jean 04.12.09 | 10:01 PM ET

I took a couple of guide books with me to Paris last year and left them in my room at a B & B in Giverny on my last day.  I knew it would be several years before I got back and since there can be a number of changes over the course of time, I’ll get fresh guides on my next trip.

I always take a couple of books when traveling.  It’s 10 hrs. to most of Europe from the west coast of the US so I have time waiting at the airport and certainly on the plane.  If I finish a book,  I leave it on the plane for someone else to enjoy.  Wherever I’m waiting I find the line moves faster, the dentist sees me quicker or I’m less uncomfortable eating alone if I have my trusty book.

H. Hilborn 04.12.09 | 10:20 PM ET

“Synpathetic” writers have their uses, but I prefer travel writing by Outsiders: Theroux, Naipaul…

Frank 04.13.09 | 10:23 AM ET

No doubt, humor is key, but is it a category, or something that spans categories?  I’d put Tim Cahill in that camp, and I think (sorry Tom) that Bryson is a comic genius.  And on my last trip, I did actually bring some HST, which was perfect. And The Caliph’s House is very funny.

As for escapism, Kevin, I’ll make you a deal:  I spare you the condescension, and you spare me the earnest defense of sci-fi.  I enjoy a little elvish as much as the the next guy at the con, but the point is it takes us out of this world, not further into it.

James Clark 04.13.09 | 11:00 AM ET

Love the list. I would add in Ender’s Game to the Escape category.

For History, I read The Agony and the Ecstasy prior to traveling to Italy the first time. Was a great book that lead to a better understanding of Michelangelo.

Marilyn_Res 04.13.09 | 12:12 PM ET

More great books to read during or before your travels on National Geographic’s Ultimate Travel Library:

Emma 04.13.09 | 12:30 PM ET

For traveling in Spanish speaking cultures I’ve found a dictionary and 501 verbs to be very helpful. Also, an ‘escape’ book is a necessity for me, just for a mental break. I would add a local newspaper,  to keep up on whats happening and learn a few new words or phrases…Great list though, makes me want to head to the book store and bulk up.

Sophia Dembling 04.13.09 | 5:14 PM ET

With all due respect to my friend Tom, In a Sunburned Country is one of my all-time favorite travel books. I remember less about his solitary meals than about the many ways Australia can kill you.

But I gravitate towards (and tend to do) very personal travel writing. Different strokes….

Justin Russell 04.14.09 | 2:50 AM ET

Great article. The escape book reminds me of a summer spent in Greece, where my complete lack of understanding the language made finding the The Lord of the Rings in a single volume a joyous event.

Darrin DuFord 04.15.09 | 2:24 PM ET

Great piece.  Sometimes, local comic books can add to the experience of your travels.  When I was in Valparaiso, I picked up a comic book titled ‘Super Vaca’ from artist Renzo Soto.  As low-brow and culturally void a comic may seem at first (or at least that is the stereotype), Super Vaca hit upon no less than 4 of the above categories: local lit (artist is from Valpo and his characters wait for the same trolleys as I did); history (flashbacks to the Pinochet era); escapism (gruesome sci-fi elements); and humor (self-awareness throughout).  Incidentally, the comic book won a grant from the government of Chile.

Anyone want to take swipes at me from a literary high horse?

Rich Dansereau 04.16.09 | 10:23 AM ET

I am a voracious reader. I tend to take only a couple of books but lots of magazines on trips. I find that magazines obviously offer quicker reads when you only want to be immersed for a short period of time.

Renzo Soto 04.19.09 | 10:35 PM ET

thanx 4 speak about my work!!!

Karen E. 04.22.09 | 3:58 PM ET

To Jeff, who never reads while he’s on vacation: I can drink wine and listen to music in my living room too, but i still choose to do lots of both when I’m traveling. BTW, reading while you travel doesn’t mean you’re NOT doing other things like mountain climbing or meeting locals or visiting museums. It just means that you are using your downtime (i.e. long flights, solo meals) to indulge in a great intellectual pleasure that few of us have time for at home. Anyway, better to read instead of mindlessly vegging in front of the boob tube when you’re all alone in a hotel room.

Fred 04.24.09 | 11:45 PM ET

I was afraid someone would eventually come down hard on Jeff as the one who points out the emperor wears no clothes. True, I take along one noteworthy book of the hundreds waiting to be read for about 50 years. In 2 weeks of Europe I might make it to the middle. For heaven’s sake, don’t you travelers ever seek out people to chat with, to learn from them, to teach them about you, to help the curious with the English they want to pactice on you. And when I do find an hour, I pen precious distilled thoughts and observations into my journal.

Kevin Evans 04.28.09 | 10:36 AM ET

I never get time to read the great classics when I’m at home, so I always catch up on ‘proper’ books while travelling. I read Heart of Darkness and Breakfast at Tiffany’s on my last trip - brilliant. The other benefit of reading these while travelling is I usually have more time, and fewer distractions, so I can take in the actual language and more fully appreciate its beauty.

Kirstin 04.28.09 | 2:31 PM ET

I always bring a book along with the intention of finishing it on the plane ride - and then find myself peering sideways at the person next to me with US Weekly or People or some similar nonsense. But once I get into the book, the flight goes by quickly. I do consider weight when choosing a book and limit myself to one. I find there is usually so much to watch when I’m traveling that I rarely want to duck into a buck except on the flight. The local literature is the next frontier for me I think.

Kirstin 04.28.09 | 2:32 PM ET

that’s “book” not “buck”!

Alastair Humphreys 05.26.09 | 11:00 AM ET

What a delicious article! The more books the merrier…

Here’s a nice list to help with your selection: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/travelbooks/4932008/The-20-best-travel-books-of-all-time.html

Patrik 05.26.09 | 12:55 PM ET

I will do a lot of reading before I embark on a journey and sometimes also after Iíve returned back home. But when I travel, I tend to travel as light as possible. As a result, I will usually only allow myself just two books: one guide book and one journal for my own writings and sketches.

Traveling this way does at times feel very Spartan. But the way I see it, waiting is as much part of the journey as the rest of it is and should be experienced just as intensely.

Chris 05.27.09 | 12:37 PM ET

Personally, I love to read every chance I get.  I don’t see why I should sacrifice what likely numbers among my top 3 favorite activities simply to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who believe we shouldn’t read while travelling.

In my experience, reading leads to a more intellectually involved experience of the trip.  Sometime what I read is relevant to my trip, sometimes not, but reading stimulates my thoughts and, therefore, often causes me to have thoughts I wouldn’t possibly have had if I hadn’t brought my books along.

A homogeneous environment tends to get boring.  It’s true of home (thus the vacation), and often true even on vacation.  By reading, I can take the vacation from my vacation that I need in order to keep my surroundings fresh and interesting.  Perhaps this isn’t the only way to do so, but it’s certainly my preferred way to do so.

AmyMorrison 10.19.10 | 4:25 PM ET

This is great advice.  I went to Versailles this summer for the first time knowing relatively little about it. When I returned home I happened to read a couple fictional accounts of Marie Antoinette’s time there. I would have appreciated the palace even more had I known the small stories about how she sat for paintings, and used secret passageways, among other details. 
When I travel I end up spending lots of time in bookstores and even local libraries; a peaceful respite from the tourist bustle. I spend almost all my souvenir budget on foreign books but have learned that I need to head to the post office to ship them home before traveling onto the next city.

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