14 Great Books for the Thoughtful Traveler

Travel guides are fine for plotting out the nitty gritty of a vacation, but reading the right book before or during a trip can sometimes leave us with a much clearer sense of place. And even if the destinations below aren't in your immediate travel plans, you may find these books make you a more thoughtful traveler.

 

When Traveling to California:

Anyone looking to make some sense of California can start with just about any of Joan Didion's earlier work. A native of Sacramento, Didion's writing moves between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley, capturing with pinpoint precision the mood of 1960s California. Of course, the bulk of her observations still apply in today's California, where freeway culture remains highly romanticized and the Santa Ana winds still pose a threat.

The White Album by Joan Didion

Price: $10.76 paperback, $1.99 Kindle, $36.71 hardcover

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "Re-visiting these essays all these years after, I am impressed at how relevant most of what Ms.Didion had to say. I am really enjoying re-reading this, and encourage anyone who lived through the 60's to do the same."

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Price: $10.20 paperback, $9.17 Kindle, $49.95 hardcover

Star Rating: 3.5

Amazon Review: "In Joan Didion's classic, Play It as It Lays, Maria Wyeth resides in a psychiatric hospital. As the story unfolds we get a glimpse of what her life was like before she got there. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, there isn't any glitz. It's bleak, harrowing, and fascinating."

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Price: $10.20 paperback, $9.17 Kindle, $16.00 hardcover

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "Joan Didion writes with an immediacy that places you exactly where she is, geographically, temporally, and emotionally. Her use of language is precise and beautiful. It had been too many years since I had read her work. I won’t make that mistake again."

 

When Traveling to Morocco:

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

A New Yorker by birth, Paul Bowles lived most of his life in Tangier, Morocco. He published several collections of short stories and novels beautifully detailing life in a post-war Morocco. Even if Northern Africa isn't on your immediate to-do list, these novels may nudge readers to reconsider the way we approach cultures outside of our own as tourists.

Price: $9.27 paperback, $9.24 Kindle, $13.00 hardcover

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review: "One of my favorites - after traveling Morocco last summer, this book truly captures the essence of the desert towns and landscapes. Bowles writes with vivid descriptions that bring back the sights, scents and feeling of being right there inside the story."

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Price: $15.79 paperback, $7.99 Kindle, $30.00 hardcover

Star Rating:
3.5

Amazon Review: "Captures glimpses of the famous city in the post war international zone. Truly a rich depiction of a man slowly corrupted, with a host of colorful and flawed characters around him."

When Traveling to New York:

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

As frenzied and tiresome as New York feels most days, this quintessential '80s novel chronicles the hard living of its protagonist as he copes with divorce and the death of his mother.

Price: $11.98 paperback, $11.99 Kindle, $48.00 leather bound

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "Pre-smartphone pre-Giuliani downtown NYC goodness. Interesting to read after Bright Precious Days (his most recent book) and compare landscape."

Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara

Part of the Pocket Poet Series, Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara offers some of the most spot-on slice-of-life depictions of New York City.

Price: $8.71 paperback, $12.40 hardcover

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "I'm researching the New York School - artists, photographers, poets, and came across O'Hara - what a gift this little book is, I keep it next to my bed and keep dipping into it. Eclectic, clever, worth reading."

 

When Traveling to Berlin:

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Even if you've seen Cabaret a million times, the Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood makes for a good read before or during a visit to Berlin, especially through the murky lens of 2017.

Price: $11.70 paperback, $9.99 Kindle, $63.30 hardcover

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review: "If "Cabaret" is your only interest in this book, you just might be disappointed: only one story, 50 pages, focuses on Sally Bowles. But you just might be disappointed in "Cabaret" after reading this insightful book with dozens of culled-from-real-life characters Isherwood knew in his time in Berlin -- the end of Weimar, the emergence of Nazi Germany. The power of this book is the subtly-told first-hand experience of tension, arising fear and near certainty of calamity that would be World War II and the Holocaust."

When Traveling to New Orleans:

Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana

A must read before any trip to the Big Easy! Originally published in 1945, this collection of Louisiana folk tales provides a thorough history on a range of local topics, from Creole dating protocols to the infamous New Orleans axe murders.

Price: $10.10 paperback, $9.60 Kindle, $15.00 hardcover

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "I first read this book when I was in middle school or high school back in the 1970s. It quickly became my favorite book and remains one of my all time favorites. This book is chock full of Louisiana folklore. As an African American of Cajun descent, I enjoyed reading about the Cajuns along the bayous. I myself grew up along Bayou Barataria. My favorite stories include the loup garou, Cajuns and city dwelling Creoles. While I still have my hardback copy, I would love to have a copy for my Kindle. I recommend other books by Tallant and Saxon."

 

When Traveling to London:

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

From the Longman Caribbean Writer Series, Sam Selvon tells the story of London's West Indian immigrants and their arrival in a city that is far from welcoming.
 

Price: $22.80 paperback

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review: "In an era of teaching multiculturalism, this book by Sam Selvon is a pioneer and a work of genius and heartbreaking accomplishment. It's about the West Indian community in London after the massive immigrations but before the riots of the 1960s. Told in a kind of pigeon patois, this book is part picaresque, part travelogue, all the way funny and dark and lyrical and beautiful."

 
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now -- As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

A snapshot of modern London as strung together by the stories of its inhabitants, from all walks of life.

Price: $9.98 paperback, $8.49 Kindle, $8.72 hardcover

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review:
"As an American, I have what is probably the typical American view of London-the Tower, Big Ben, the London Eye, Trafalgar Square...what most people fail to realize is that London is a city unlike any other in the world, and its population comes from all walks of life. "Londoners" offers an insight into the lives of the diverse inhabitants of England's capital city without dramatization or falsehood but reads like a great novel. I strongly urge anyone interested who's ever visited, lived in, or wants to do either to pick up this great book and get a taste of the "real" London."

 

When Traveling to Australia:

Voss by Patrick White


Australian author Patrick White won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature for Voss, the story of a German explorer who treks across the harsh landscape of colonial Australia. This is White's best-known novel, though his other works are equally suited for looking in on Australian culture.

Price: $14.40 paperback, $17.58 hardcover

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review: "This was my first PW novel - and my first Australian novel. PW plays marvelously with a handful of characters who each represent an authentic aspect of the Australian spirit. From the aborigine to the aristocracy, you have all the elements of the tug-of-war of cultural identity at work: the outback, the outsider, the pagan/saint adventurer, the romantic, the refined, the restrained, the wild man. The exposition was engaging from the beginning and haunting at the end. A wonderful introduction to Australian literature."

 

If the Journey is the Destination:

Instead of reading about where you're going, sometimes the most interesting story is how we get there. These books are sure to provide a little insight into the nuts and bolts of air travel as you make your way from A to B.

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton walks London Heathrow's Terminal 5 for a full week, examining the inner workings of this busy airport where hundreds of thousands of passengers come and go each day.

Price: $13.60 paperback, $10.99 Kindle

Star Rating: 4.5

Amazon Review: "This is certainly an idiosyncratic book and not for everyone, but even just a few of the paragraphs are enough to justify it as a great read for me. You can learn more about humans, customer service, air travel...from a philosopher like de Bouton than from a dozen average business books--and the book's just the perfect size to put in your carry-on for while you're below 10,000 feet and can't use your iKindleDroidNookReader®. I've quoted several passages of this for my upcoming book and whenever I return to those passages I'm always newly impressed by the fluidity and insight in de Bouton's writing."


Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole

Think flying is stressful? Try being a flight attendant. For those who've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes, veteran flight attendant Heather Poole tells all, from unruly passengers to crew squabbles.

Price: $8.54 paperback, $8.49 Kindle

Star Rating: 4

Amazon Review: "I always knew that being a flight attendant was hard work, but had no idea HOW hard. I also had no idea about so many other things discussed in this book: working standby, lack of crew meals, low pay, seniority rules, etc. This book was enlightening as well as entertaining, and I will forever hold more respect for the work these dedicated women and men do. I look forward to a sequel!"

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