Five Travel Books to Get You to Hit the Road

Journalism school is overwhelming. People are constantly fighting for clips, being pretentious is taught in the basic reporting class and the DI newsroom just always looked…so….full of frazzled people (which I came to find out when I worked there one semester).
I found solace in a few classes where the teachers were experienced and invested, and where new worlds opened up. I love that my editing instructor took funny and interesting articles and changed them to be grammatically incorrect for exams, that my ethics teacher had a sweater with a dog on it, and that my magazine reporting and writing class prof was a frequent visitor of the Popcorn Shop. But Gigi Durham was something else.
I took Writing Across Cultures with her, a journalist who writes about women and gender issues, eager to learn how I could get my travel work published. Her answer was simple: Read. Read until your eyes fall out of your brain.
I became obsessed with the search for good travel writing through various magazines and Sunday sections, library stacks and recommendations. I was already in love with plenty of books: The Stranger, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, A Boy’s Life, The Princess Bride. Then came the book we read in Gigi’s class: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

Written by journalist Anne Fadiman, the novel chronicle’s a Hmong family’s struggle to cope with Western medicine for their child, who they believe had fallen and let a bad spirit inside of her (Her Western diagnosis was epilepsy). I read the whole thing in a weekend. It was one of the novels that kind of stirs you inside when you finish the last page, the last word, close the book, set it on your lap and just think.

I needed more.

Armed with my Wheaton Public Library card upon graduating, I spent my whole summer reading about expatriate life, Spain and duende. I made it a goal to one day travel with an entire suitcase of books about the destinations I’d be visiting, to fall in love with poetry about the Alhambra, to place the vivid images in my mind when laying eyes on the things I’d always dreamed of seeing.

Good travel writing takes many forms, from pilgrimages to self-discovery to an eloquent love-affair with a destination, a feeling, an event. I’ve read plenty I don’t like, and many I would pick up again and again. Below are my top-fives picks.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
My sister is an English teacher and loves the greats: the Brönte sisters, Shakespeare and the dude who wrote about a fish, Ernest Hemingway. I, for one, don’t care for any of them, but she begged me to give Ernest a chance. I was reluctant, but upon visiting Pamplona and sitting in his old haunt, Café Irún, I knew I had to know why this man had taken to Spain as much as I. The story begins in Paris and travels to Pamplona, where a group of expat friends witness a bullfight. Though not traditionally classified as a travel book, this book spoke to me about the pitfalls of living abroad and got me prepared for witnessing Spain’s national game (and this prompted me to read A Farewell to Arms, which I adored). thanks, Margie, for making me give your old pal a second chance.

Buy now: The Sun Also Rises Paperback |  The Sun Also Rises Kindle

Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnick
Some say you either love Paris or you hate it, but I can imagine myself there in a second. This book, along with the Michelin Green Book, was my only required reading for a college class called “Paris and the Art of Urban Life,” which I might credit as a big part of my moving abroad. Gopnick, an accomplished journalist moved to the French capital for five years, compiled sweet vignettes of his observations into this hilarious book. His takes on French fashion, French women and French politics are of that laugh-out-loud type, and I think they really have inspired me to discover the hidden Spain. I like to consider myself a bit of an expert, really!

Buy now: Paris to the Moon Paperback |  Paris to the Moon Kindle

No Reservations, Alice Steinbach
This story follows the typical travel memoir outline: Woman in need of adventure and to rediscover herself. Quits job. Moves to Paris with just a hotel reservation. Sits in Duex Magots paying 7€ for a cafe au lait. Meets soul mate. You get it, and you’ve read it. But what is so poignant about this book is how Steinbach weaves in memories of her previous 40-something years into her experiences living around Europe, somehow suggestion that all great travel is prefaced, even by a young age. I’m currently 80 or so pages into the book but enjoying her insistence that being programed to travel is innate.

Buy now: Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman Paperback

River Town, Peter Hessler
My dad gave me his credit card and asked me to buy a guidebook to China, a Michelin map of China and a book for myself, knowing I love to read (Yes, my dad is the coolest). I went to a bookshop and browsed the entire travel section, eventually ending up with a copy of Hessler’s account of his two years in the Peace Corps in Fuling. I would be traveling to China in six months, and those this book had nothing to do with my destinations, it was a memorable introduction into the lives of the chinese, especially during the opening up despite the traces of the cultural revolution. Though a bit long at times, I was swept away in his struggle to fit in, his struggle to understand the Chinese way of life (often at the cost of taking shots of liquor to save face) and his struggle to leave a place he grew to love.

Buy now: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) Paperback |  River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) Kindle

A Year in the World, Frances Mayes
Yes, this is the same woman who Diane Lane brought to life in Under the Tuscan Sun, but, really it is my favorite travel book. I bought it the first day I was back in America for summer reading, and to my astonishment, the first place Mayes chose to call “home” on her year abroad was Seville. The way she described Plaza Altozano made my arm hair stand on end, and I actually got a little teary. Mayes and her husband left their California home and spent one year traveling to numerous locales to try and figure out what makes a home. Is it the structure itself? The surroundings? The people? I ask myself these questions daily, but Mayes’s sense of humor, effortless prose and ponderances have stayed with me nearly three years after picking up the book.

Buy now: A Year in the World: Journeys of A Passionate Traveller Paperback |  A Year in the World: Journeys of A Passionate Traveller Kindle

I’m constantly on the look out for other great reads, be it travel or otherwise. Any hints? 

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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