While I love traveling, and planning travel experiences, I also greatly love to read about travel, about places I’d love to visit some day and even those I don’t. Nothing excites me more than opening a book that’s going to inform me about a place, about experience, about a different culture, and the potential for my own travel in some way.
Over the years I’ve discovered that travel books generally fall into three different categories:
- Guidebooks: Rick Steve’s travel guides, Lonely Planet Guides, Fodors guides all fall into this category. They are important sources for figuring out what to see and when, where to eat, where to stay, transportation choices, and so forth wherever you’re going. Many of these guides are available online now, or can be downloaded to an eReader, and they link up to blogs, and other travel forums, to provide further information to help plan your travels. While traditional guide books can be rather dry and in my opinion, don’t really give a great sense of place, these days it’s easy to find guides that focus on your particular interests, whether that’s food or technology or fashion. Illustrated guidebooks are available as well. On of my favorite books about Tokyo is Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhoods. Rather than dry facts about the city, Florent Chavouet uses his beautiful illustrations combined with memoir to highlight Tokyo’s vibrant neighborhoods. Clueless in Tokyo: An Explorer’s Sketchbook of Weird and Wonderful Things in Japan by Betty Reynolds, is another quirky guidebook about things you see or find all over Japan. These types of books exist for other locations as well.
- Travel Stories or Memoirs: This genre of travel book covers a writer’s actual journey from place to place, recounting experiences as well as reactions to experiences. Sometimes the travel stories themselves form the focus of the book, but other times it’s how the author’s trip or travels have changed or transformed them and their world view. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is an excellent example of this latter type of travel book, as is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. In contrast, many of Bill Bryson’s travel books (Notes From a Small Island, A Walk In the Woods, The Lost Continent, etc.) are more about his experiences versus any personal transformation. Did you know that some of literature’s finest writers have penned travel stories? Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, and Evelyn Waugh, among others have all written about their travels. The first travel book that I remember reading, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, had a profound influence on me, and I’ve been hooked on travel literature ever since. For years after finishing On The Road I would climb into my car and immediately have an urge to hit the road to see where it might take me. Other’s travel stories have tended to have the same effect on me ever since (yes, I very briefly thought about hiking the Pacific Coast and the Appalachian Trails after reading Wild and A Walk In the Woods). If there’s someplace you want to go, there’s probably been a book written by someone who has travelled there.
- Settled in Place: Books set in one location and over a period of time can tell of life and experience in a much richer and deeper way than those about moving from location to location. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence or Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun are examples of books that let you experience the culture, daily life and personalities of their location in a way that’s different from a book that moves you to different places throughout the book. This type of book can highlight the author’s personal transformation and understanding as well, but at a different pace than other types of travel books. Books that give a sense of place and inspire travel don’t always fall under the “travel book” category, either. Nothing has made me want to visit Venice more than Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mysteries, all set in Venice, and offering a sometimes more gritty and realistic view of the city, a look beneath the typical tourist experience. The same is true of Ian Rankin’s Rebus mysteries, set in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Travel literature can be condensed down even more from the three types I’ve highlighted above, including culinary travel experiences (hello Anthony Bourdain!), travel mysteries, and so forth depending on your interests. Wherever you want to go, no matter what you want to do or experience, there are books that will give you a deeper understanding, or a different view, of place beyond how to get there and where to stay.
Finally, although I’ve read more books about Japan than I can remember, they are one of my least favorite types of travel books, especially ones that try to “explain” Japan, or highlight how different or weird it is or can be compared to Western culture. Someone once wrote that after a month in Japan he felt he could write a book; after six months, a paragraph; and after a year he’d be lucky to get out a sentence that could explain Japan. So true – sometimes it seems the more I know about Japan, the less I understand. My favorite books about Japan have been those that simply relate someone’s experience there, without trying to analyze why things are the way they are or why things are done a certain way. My favorite books about Japan have been those written by Japanese authors, including Hiruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Even Marie Kondo’s books on tidying up give insights into Japan that I wouldn’t find in a traditional travel books. In my opinion, to enjoy Japan is to experience Japan, as it is. Get a guide book and go – you don’t need to “understand” it. Besides, even when you think you do, that understanding will most likely be challenged or debunked within a very short time!
So, what are your favorite travel guides and literature? What books would you recommend for those of us who love to read about travel, and visiting different places?