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Literature For Vagabonds

Now is a great time to read about places you’ve visited or would like to visit in the future. Below are some travel-related books, on our shelves for years, that were written by or about authors, explorers and nature lovers. All had a passion to discover and learn. (Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comment section below.)

  • A Tramp Abroad (1880), Mark Twain. This is the author’s account of his adventurous journey, mostly on foot, through Europe. The ultimate storyteller, Twain’s writing is filled with fascinating characters and vivid anecdotes about the places he visits.
  • The Life of My Choice (1987), Wilfrid Thesiger. Raised in Ethiopia and regarded as one of the world’s greatest explorers, the late British traveler penned this fascinating autobiography covering the people and events that inspired him to follow his dreams and explore some of the world’s most exotic places.
  • The Outermost House (1928), Henry Beston. The author’s lyrical narrative chronicles the solitary year he spent on a Cape Cod beach. Although he had planned to spend just two weeks in his seaside cabin, he became so enthralled by the beauty of his surroundings he couldn’t leave. Based on notes made in longhand on his kitchen table, he writes of the wonders of life around him, and much more, over the course of a year’s sojourn.
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936), Freya Stark. In 1935 this Anglo-Italian explorer, travel writer and photographer journeyed alone into southern Arabia, a region which, at that time, hardly any women or Europeans dared visit. She traversde areas where Bedouin tribes were chronically engaged in conflict and discovered a part of the world that was exotic and fascinating. Passionate about life and driven by wanderlust, she famously wrote, “One life is an absurdly small allowance.”
  • The Crystal Desert (1992), David G. Campbell. An ecologist and explorer, Campbell writes lyrically about the Antarctica Peninsula, a region where he spent three summers. The book is at once a celebration of the otherworldly beauty and abundant wildlife he found and a lament for places that have been despoiled by human intrusion.
  • In the Heart of the Sea (2000), Nathanial Philbrick. A New York Times bestseller, this riveting narrative describes the true story of one of the most unusual sagas at sea. In the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, the Nantucket whaling ship Essex was rammed and sunk by a rogue sperm whale. What follows is a white-knuckle tale of survival. These events, which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, have been made into a feature-length movie of the same name. The extraordinary historical details bring early 19th-century Nantucket to life, including the adventurous lifestyles of the whalers at sea and their families left back at home.
  • This Cold Heaven (2001), Gretel Erlich. The author is obsessed with Greenland, an island covered in large part by ice. She writes a vivd narrative, interspersed with history and cultural insights, about the beauty of the country,
  • Journeys (1984), Jan Morris. This collection of essays by the prolific author captures the essence of some of the planet’s most fascinating cities and regions. Combining historical fact with evocative descriptions and colorful anecdotes, she reminds us what it’s like to be a perceptive explorer. For more about Morris, check out our earlier post.
  •  Anatomy of Restlessness (1996), Bruce Chatwin. Long recognized as an incomparable travel writer, the late British author is known for his fascinating reportage on far-flung corners of the earth. He was equally adept at writing about archaeology, architecture and art. This collection of essays reveals, among many other interests, his fascination with, and yearning for, the nomadic life.
  • Dreams of El Dorado (2019), H.W. Brands. This narrative covers the full sweep of the exploration and settling of the American West—a fundamental drama in American history. The author focuses on key individuals and major events that shaped the frontier and captures the yearning for adventure and new frontiers as well as the courage of the early pioneers.
  • The White Nile & The Blue Nile, two-volume set (1960), Alan Morehead. These books, both lavishly illustrated, cover the fascinating history of the Nile River in the 19th century. Complementing each other, they can be read together or separately. The narratives serve as exciting, very readable introductions to regions, then largely unknown to Europeans, and to the intrepid explorers who endured unimaginable hardships to pioneer the exploration and settlement of the continent.
  • I Married Adventure (1940), Osa Johnson. This memoir details the exciting African adventures Johnson had with her husband, Martin, an explorer and pioneering photographer. The two early 20th-century explorers, photographers, filmmakers and writers—both from America’s Midwest—were perpetually on the move, driven to document the indigenous people and wildlife they encountered.
  • My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), John Muir. This classic incorporates the poetic accounts of the renowned naturalist during his four-month stay in the Yosemite Valley and High Sierra Mountains in 1869. Muir, known as “the father of the national parks,” describes the epic vistas, flora and fauna and other natural wonders in such exuberant, ecstatic language, he makes you want to be right there with him.
  • The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1950), Thor Heyerdahl. This classic book, reprinted in 70 languages, covers Heyerdahl’s daring journey with 5 other crew members on a balsa wood raft to support his conjecture that Polynesia could have been settled, at least in part, by pre-Columbian adventurers from Peru who make a similar Pacific Ocean crossing on primitive rafts.  An original 1950 documentary film made by the crew was released in 1950. A 2012 dramatization of the adventure earned both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
  • Fatu Hiva, Back to Nature (1974), Thor Heyerdahl. Many years after the successful Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl wrote  this vivid account of his earlier 1936 “escape” with his new bride to the remote island of Fatu-Hiva in the incredibly beautiful Marquesas Islands of Polynesia. It’s about two people who actually escaped civilization for a year-long adventure in the South Seas, the kind of journey most people only dream about. Heyerdahl’s recollections of the details of this adventure are remarkable—and poetic!
  • A Glimpse of Eden (1967), Evelyn Ames. The America author from Hartford, Connecticut, vividly captures the wonder and excitement of a first trip to East Africa with her husband. Describing the natural beauty and wildlife in poetic language, also shares her meditations on the natural world—sketches that convey not only her fascination with what she’s observing but also what she learns about herself and mankind in the process. As she confesses up front, “It’s a world from which one comes back changed.” For more, see our earlier post.
  • West with the Night (1942), Beryl Markham. The English-born author,  record-setting pilot, horse breeder, adventurer and farmer, had a life-long fascination with East Africa. She writes of “the soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life and its singular rhythms.” Hemingway called her book “bloody wonderful” and confessed it was so good it made him “ashamed as a writer.”
  • Straight On Till Morning (2011), Mary S. Lovell. This New York Times best-seller is the definitive biography of Beryl Markham— citizen of the world, author (West With the Night, 1942), record-setting aviator (the first pilot to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west) and much more. Markham was truly a unique and remarkable woman who marched to her own drummer.
  • Travels with Charley (1962), John Steinbeck. With his French poodle, Charley, Steinbeck drives across America on a road trip from the northernmost tip of Maine to California’s Monterey Peninsula. At the age of 58, he seeks to rediscover the country he has already written about for so many years. In a personal, informal style that incorporates humor and astute observations, he describes his diverse experiences—dining with truckers, encountering bears in Yellowstone, finding old friends in San Francisco—as he reflects on his experiences and the character of America.
  • A Moveable Feast (1964), Ernest Hemingway. This classic memoir, published posthumously, covers Hemingway’s fascinating life in Paris in the 1920s after he served in WW1. It makes a reader want to experience Paris as a bohemian.
  • The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway. His first novel is set in Pamplona, Spain during the celebrated bullfighting fiesta there.  It conveys a poignant spirit of place that both travelers and travel writers can appreciate. The 2014 edition includes an introduction by Sean Hemingway. He cites the supplementary material at the end of the book which includes a description by Ernest Hemingway of his first visit to Pamplona. Author Joyce Carol Oates considers this short piece one of the best American essays of the 20th century. Don’t overlook it if you pick up this edition!
  • A Walk in the Woods (1998), Bill Bryson. This book describes the author’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. In his humorous, self-deprecating style he describes the challenges—and unusual characters—he meets along the way, all the while educating us on the history and natural history of the trail.
  • Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), Colin Thubron. Considered the dean of British travel writers, Thubron provides a compelling narrative of his travels along Asia’s Silk Road, which he reminds us isn’t one road but a “fretwork of trade routes dating back to the 1500 B.C.” Along civilization’s oldest and longest route, he brings into focus his poignant experiences and meditations. For more about Thubron, see our earlier post.
  • Coming into the Country (1991), John McPhee. This is a memorable account of Alaska and the people who inhabit the state. Three segments cover the wilderness, urban areas and life in the remote bush. McPhee travels throughout the state conversing with bush pilots, settlers, prospectors, politicians and businessmen who all have different points of view. This is McPhee’s best-selling book. His clear, succinct writing style serves him well whatever subject he chooses to cover.
  • Endurance, Schackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959), Alfred Lansing. This riveting narrative traces the events of one of the world’s most incredible survival stories at sea. The harrowing account of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole will have you on the edge of your seat. After his sailing ship, Endurance, is crushed by pack ice, Shackleton must provide the leadership, stamina and courage to save himself and his crew against daunting odds.
  • Epic Wanderer (2003), D’Arcy Jenish. Drawing on David Thompson’s personal journals, and illustrated with his sketches, this book covers the travels of Thompson in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Canadian West. It’s the first full-length biography of this explorer and mapmaker who spent nearly three decades surveying and mapping the vast region.
  • Undaunted Courage (1997), Stephen Ambrose. This New York Times #1 bestseller provides the definitive account of the Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the American West, the most important expedition in American history and one of the world’s great adventure stories. In 1804, following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the men to lead the journey from the Missouri River to the northern Pacific Coast and back. They mapped rivers, traced the country’s principal waterways to the sea and established America’s claim to diverse western territories.
  • Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Person History (Revised 2012), Robert Hughes. This book is a classic and required reading for anyone who plans to visit, or has already visited, the Eternal City.





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