The Best Travel Books of 2009
Travel Books: Frank Bures picks a dozen, from an Amazon adventure story to a tale of the old Hippie Trail
12.23.09 | 11:07 AM ET
It’s that time of year again, when we look back at the year in travel books. There were plenty to choose from in 2009. Here are our picks.
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre
A mix of photography and graphic novel, this book tells the story of Lefèvre’s journey across Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet Union’s invasion. Gripping, gritty, honest and raw, it’s a fascinating look into a place most of us will never see.
An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town by David Farley
The story of the quest for Jesus’ foreskin will be, I hope, the first of many books about Italy on subjects other than the Mafia or some discovery of timeless wisdom via real estate. Farley’s humor and curiosity make him the best kind of travel companion. A frequent World Hum contributor, he spoke to us about the book in July.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
This may be the best book I read this year—from any genre. McDougall travels deep into the Sierra Madres looking for the answer to a question about human evolution. A worthy successor to (and with a more robust conclusion than) Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines.”
Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing by Jeffrey Tayler
Easily one of the best travel writers working today, Tayler, a frequent World Hum contributor, turns out yet another fine book about a rich journey, all the while posing larger questions about what unites us with and divides us from the people he meets along the way.
Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space by Cees Nooteboom
While Nooteboom is known more for his novels, this welcome collection rounds up some 40 years of his travel writing about places like Italy, Ireland and Africa. But Nooteboom’s real journey is through the world of ideas—among other feats, he constructs his perfect hotel from all the places he’s traveled in life. In this way and others, Nooteboom pushes the borders of travel writing a little further.
Normally I hate these kinds of list books, but this volume won me over. A beautiful book (with a short introduction by Bill Bryson), it doesn’t insist that you go anywhere, but merely gives alternatives to the usual beats. It’s a great reminder of just how big the world is.
Chucking It All: How Downshifting to a Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life by Max Scratchmann
Not exactly the “War and Peace” of travel writing, but you have to love the concept, as well as Scratchmann’s cojones for skewering a narrative that is getting more and more tired.
Make no mistake, though this is billed as a guide, it isn’t one. It’s essentially an art book, which harks back to the “Day in the Life” series, and the photos capture aspects of people’s daily routines with sections such as “Belief,” “Keepsakes” and “Transport.” This is the best kind of travel book: a book about life.
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean
This book about going across Asia by land along the “Hippie Trail” is full of insight and history. It’s a great journey into the past as well as through the present—and one that MacLean spoke to us about in January.
This collection gives us some of the best food writing by the beloved and venerable journalist, R.W. Apple, who died in 2006. A man of legendary appetite, he traveled the world musing on everything from porridge in England to dim sum in Singapore to bratwurst in Wisconsin.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Vivid and fast-paced, Grann’s account of his search for the mystery behind the death of explorer Percy H. Fawcett became the year’s breakaway bestseller, and rightly so, given its seamless mix of old and new stories. We interviewed him about it in March.
The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing edited by John Rasmus
Alas, a great magazine goes out with a bang. This anthology of writing from National Geographic Adventure magazine, which shut down shortly after the book was released, is full of great travel writing by Tim Cahill, Kira Salak, Scott Anderson and others, and will sit nicely next to great anthologies like Out of The Noosphere and Wild Stories. Rasmus spoke to World Hum about the book in September.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne
Far and away the best book written by an outsider about Bangkok, if not Thailand. Osborne, featured in a World Hum interview earlier this year, captures the city and all its various currents better than anyone has done so far, and better even than I imagined it would be possible to do.