Nine Subversive Travel Novels

Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates fiction that uncovers deeper truths about travel and the world

‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac

One of America’s most popular novels and go-to reading for any young traveler, On the Road developed out of Kerouac’s North American travels in the late 1940s. Once seen as rebellious, Kerouac’s adventures—like, say, going to Mexico to smoke weed with a real, live Mexican—are something that many Americans now experience prior to finishing high school. Kerouac’s 1940s fringe behaviors are no longer so taboo. However, when “On the Road” was published at the apex of American conformity in 1951, it was scandalous and revolutionary. One thing hasn’t changed, however: the book’s ability to motivate readers to chuck their quotidian routine and hit the road.

‘Kaputt’ by Curzio Malaparte

Italian fascist-cum-exile-cum-writer-and-eventual-Communist Malaparte explores the horrific endgame on the Eastern front of World War II in the Ukraine. Malaparte served the Italian government as a diplomat and worked as a correspondent during the war and was able to evaluate the devastation through the eyes of the people who knew they were going to lose. He drifts through lands immersed in conflict and creates a larger picture of madness and cruelty. This is a cynical and terrifying travelogue through hell, which offers as much discomfort as it offers insight. Perhaps this is to be expected from someone whose nom-de-plume means “of the bad place.”

‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell

One of the first great down-on-your-luck travel books, Down and Out in Paris and London is a depiction of Eton-educated young Orwell’s supposed slumming as a dishwasher in Paris and panhandling as a hobo in London. Rather than going on to hone his writing at Oxford or Cambridge, Orwell reported on the underworld of two great, yet class-conscious, cities through his fictionalized interactions with broken laborers and desperate immigrants. Orwell is none too kind to the harsh practices of the restaurant industry and shows signs of sympathy for the exploitation of workers, which he exhibited again in “1984.” 

‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton

Rumored to be influenced by National Geographic articles about the Tibetan travels of an Austrian-American explorer, James Hilton’s novel is the source of the fictional Tibetan lamasery (and now cliché Western utopian concept) of Shangri-La. Published in 1933, the novel uses visions of utopia to hint at the gathering storm of what was to become World War II. Trace Crutchfield, who pushed boundaries himself as a correspondent for “The Vice Guide to Travel” and “Current TV,” celebrates Lost Horizon “not only for establishing the concept of Shangri-La in a time of serious political upheaval, but for also being the first paperback in print.”

Seattle-based writer Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of the book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?, which was published in 2008. He is hard at work on various top secret and vaguely scandalous projects.

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19 Comments for Nine Subversive Travel Novels

John Rouse 01.13.10 | 1:33 PM ET

Great list.  You had me at “On the Road.”  Growing up I spent summers at the Folk Festival in Lowell, Mass where Kerouac was born.  Years later I reconnected when reading this book while on the road myself.

Emme 01.13.10 | 8:19 PM ET

How nice of him to throw in one token female writer.

Jim Benning 01.13.10 | 8:24 PM ET

Which novels would you have included, Emme? Would love to hear other ideas.

Jim Benning 01.13.10 | 8:26 PM ET

John, we’re huge Kerouac and “On the Road” fans at World Hum. Be sure to check out the other articles under our Jack Kerouac tag:

Sydney 01.13.10 | 9:07 PM ET

Coincidentally I finished ‘On the Road’ today, the first I’ve ever read by Kerouac. This list has given me several ideas for what to read next - thank you.

Vera Marie Badertscher 01.14.10 | 1:19 AM ET

Although it would not be filed under travel in the bookstore, I named The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz as my “don’t even go there” book at my book and travel blog. Dominican Republic in an unfavorable light.

Chris 01.14.10 | 12:42 PM ET

Can’t make a book list without controversy!

I’ve loved Heart of Darkness since High School. I like basically anything by Orwell and I’m getting interested in Kerouac,

Emme 01.14.10 | 6:03 PM ET

Hi Jim,

Off the top of my head:  Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ and, of course, Isek Dineson’s ‘Out of Africa’—

At least 50 percent of book buyers are women, and 50 percent of travelers are women. Yet you have no regular female columnists at worldhum! Rolf and Tom are amazing writers, but they do not represent me.

The best selling travel novel of the past years is arguably the very terrible ‘Eat, Love, Pray.’ But it struck a chord with mostly female audiences who relate to travel quests.

My two cents.

Jim Benning 01.14.10 | 6:13 PM ET


Thanks for your two cents. Two fine suggestions.

And for the record: we’d love to find a great woman columnist—or columnists!


Eva Holland 01.14.10 | 6:49 PM ET

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ was actually written by Barbara Kingsolver. Margaret Atwood’s certainly written plenty of stuff that you could make a “subversive” argument for, but none of it’s striking me as particularly travel-y off the top of my head. As for “Out of Africa” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” I believe they’re both considered to be non-fiction.

Emme, I think there’s a larger issue at work here beyond World Hum’s lists and columnists - travel writing is largely male-dominated. Personally, I’m more interested in seeing that change than in taking issue with lists that, whether I like it or not, probably reflect the current reality.

Jennifer 01.14.10 | 7:10 PM ET

Here comes another woman with a strong opinion, Jim, so fasten your seatbelt!

It’s true that most travel PLANNERS these days are women - moms who look for destination ideas online, etc. I wish I had the citation in front of me, because I’m too lazy to look it up. However, most travel writers are men. It is, as Eva implies, a shame.

The tragic thing is that I’m about to recommend my favorite on-the-road book, which is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. Yes, written by a dude. One of its main themes is that there are two basic types of people in the world: Those who like to pick things apart and understand how they work, (be they motorcycles or anything else), and those who just want to cruise along and enjoy the ride. The same holds true in many ways for travelers, I think: There people who want to get to know the history, culture, and natural habitat of a new place, and those who like to take their vacations poolside, sipping delicious drinks that come with souvenir straws.

Anyway, list list of subversive novels.

Jennifer 01.14.10 | 7:11 PM ET

Meh, I meant, NICE list of subversive novels. My copy editor is in Jamaica.

Jim Benning 01.14.10 | 7:20 PM ET

Zen is a great travel memoir, Jennifer. I loved it (though I confess I skimmed through some of the particularly lengthy meditations on “quality”).

I’m with Eva: Women travel writers are far outnumbered by men travel writers. I’d love to see more great women travel writers submitting to World Hum.

Lindsey 01.19.10 | 3:39 PM ET

Women with strong opinions! No WAY! Jenifer- that made me laugh
I had so much fun reading all the comments- and of course canít help but add mine.
Of the books Iíve read, they bring back memories (for the record Jim, I listened to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, while on one of many, cross country-road trips, itís a thick book & a good number of CDís )
But you all just gave me a good kick in the butt to get writingÖ
Tusen Tack!
(a thousand thanks)

pelu 01.19.10 | 4:53 PM ET

it so happens that I bought a copy of ‘Fear and Loathing in Vegas’ (Limited edition) few days ago. After reading through this selection, I chose to carry the book with me on my road trip around Nigeria, which is on as I write. I already feel I have a treasure on my hands

James L. Moore 01.19.10 | 11:44 PM ET

Nice list.  A couple I need to check out. 

I would throw in “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

James L. Moore 01.19.10 | 11:46 PM ET

Nice list.

I need to check a couple of those because they escaped my attention.

I would include “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

Michael Shapiro 01.26.10 | 10:49 PM ET

You want to read a great woman travel writer who hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves: try the intrepid Dervla Murphy from Ireland.

And re Kerouac: I’m sure he motivated some people to hit the road but he never moved me with his his prose. I’ve always agreed with Truman Capote’s assessment of Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Finally, how could Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits” not have made this list?

Mary D'Ambrosio 01.29.10 | 11:59 PM ET

Can a novella qualify? Garcia Marquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother,” a kind of salacious/feminist road story of a teenager whose grandmother prostitutes her all over Colombia to repay a supposed debt. People have called it everything from an allegory of Colombian development to a parable of life in medieval Spain—but to me it came across mainly as a wicked fairy tale.

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