A good book is a vagabond’s best friend.
I often find I do my best thinking while moving. By train or by plane, by bus or by ferry, my mind always opens up as the outside world whizzes by, and reading is a great way to get those cerebral juices flowing.
Here are my Top 10 Books to read on the road, most (but not all) by Beat Generation writers, by writers who influenced the Beats, or by writers who were influenced by the Beats.
1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The quintessential guide to Beat travel. Jack Kerouac (a.k.a. “Sal Paradise”) recounts his ecstatic journey among jazz cats, dope fiends, tramps, prostitutes and migrant farm workers as he zigzags across the United States and even into the heart of Mexico looking for adventure. On the Road taught me so many things, but most of all, to trust my most basic instincts and give myself up to the mystical insights and wonders of travel. Read this on a fun and lighthearted journey of discovery covering vast distances or in good (crazy) company.
2. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
American husband and wife duo Port and Kit wander the Western Sahara while grappling with their difficult marriage. The trip suddenly take a dangerous turn when Port falls ill and Kit goes off the rails. The stark landscape answers the pair’s search for meaning with the overwhelming silence of the desert. The story had me hooked from the first page, and I developed a strong sympathy with the characters’ existential despair and cavalier attitude which led them into danger. The Sheltering Sky is a great book to read in evocative desert surroundings from the Sahara to the Mojave, or just when you’re feeling lost in a strange place.
3. Queer by William S. Burroughs
Aging alcoholic and homosexual “Lee” grapples with his unrequited desire for young Allerton against the backdrop of booze-fueled expat scene in Mexico City. The bittersweet side trip to South America in search of the famous “Yage” or ayahuasca plant is especially interesting. This unpolished portrait of one queer consciousness was both shocking and refreshing to me. If you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of madness or desire, Queer will help you decide whether to step back or jump. Also a great read for a week of brooding in some god-forsaken expat enclave.
4. My Struggle, Part 1 by Karle Ove Knausgaard
Knausgaard explores the anguished relationship with his father and the world around him in this exquisitely detailed coming of age tale. The beautiful descriptions of mountains, fjords and quaint little towns finally convinced me that I need to visit Scandinavia ASAP. And for the first time in my reading life, I discovered a character just as sensitive, analytical, and pathologically introverted as myself, if not more. Knausgaard’s frank discussions of the inner workings of his mind left me feeling a little crazy, but okay with it. If you are a severe introvert or know one, you must read My Struggle. Also a great companion for trips into rural Norway, Iceland, or Sweden.
5. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Martel brings magical realism to a South Asian stage. This book is a delight to read, with colorful human and animal characters and an inspiring message of spirituality and endurance in the face of adversity. Highly recommended for a long bus ride through the jungles of Malaysia, a slow boat journey through Bangladesh, or just about anywhere! The Life of Pi‘s religious syncretism also provides ample food for thought for visiting viewing temples, mosques, and churches in hugely diverse countries like India.
6. The First Man by Albert Camus
Camus’ autobiographical account of his childhood in Algiers and his difficult transition into French society as a pied-noir. This heartbreaking tale explores the experience of a sensitive man who constantly feels neither here nor there, and provides a deeply personal glimpse of where and how Camus developed his tremendous sense of humanity. The last of Camus’ novels was unfinished when he died in a car accident, but this is no rough draft. The First Man is chalk full of beautiful prose that will have you itching to book the next flight to North Africa. Recommended reading for a trip to Morocco, Algeria, Libya, or pretty much any post-colonial country.
7. The Rebel by Albert Camus
Not a novel but a philosophical treatise, Camus draws on a variety of historians and thinkers to set the parameters of rebellion as a moral value, in fact the highest moral value and the only legitimate response to an unjust world, and yes, even an unjust God. Camus claims rebellion is also man’s affirmation of a search for meaning in an intrinsically meaningless world, and a clamoring for perfection where perfection does not exist. This book radically transformed the way I see myself within society. Next time you visit a country where inequality and oppression are pulling at the seams of society, give The Rebel a read.
8. Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
In contrast to the urban grit and sheer enthusiasm of On the Road, Dharma Bums is a more deeply introspective journey. Kerouac as “Ray” finds his very own Buddhist guru in the figure of “Japhy,” who teaches him the joys of contemplation and living in nature. Kerouac’s naivety and earnestness shine through beautifully in this novel that will have you heading for the hills, just don’t forget your ju-ju beads. Read Dharma Bums on a long trek through the mountains or a camping trip by crystalline summer lakes.
9. The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
Master travel writer Thubron has a gift for crafting enchanting, beautiful prose that will make you feel like you’re right there with him in Central Asia just after the fall of the Soviet Union. The historical detail is incredible and really helps one understand the multiple streams that flowed into Central Asian peoples’ complex identities. The Lost Heart of Asia set the perfect backdrop for my backpacking trip through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Read it on your own Silk Road journey and beyond.
10. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Hesse gives a mystical twist to the Buddhist narrative of enlightenment in this evocative novel. An enjoyable read, this book helped me gain a critical, modern perspective on the Buddhist culture I observed traveling through Southeast Asia. Read Siddhartha as you journey through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or Burma.