Must-Read Travel Books

Pedro Ribeiro Simões / CC BY 2.0

Written by  August 14, 2014

When Liza looks for overseas reading, she looks for more than just a beach book.

The summer internship has wrapped up, and now it’s time to start making lists, pulling things together and ultimately setting off to begin my study abroad adventure in Valparaíso, Chile.

Of course there are the visits to the doctor, checking in with my bank to make sure they won’t freeze my accounts while in South America, and brushing up on my Spanish. (I haven’t taken a class since December of last year and all of my courses for the next semester will be held in the language.) And then there’s the ever-dreaded task of packing.

To begin this process, I should probably be setting out clothes, figuring out which toiletries will be difficult to find in another country and making copies of all of my documents. But there’s something else that has been overwhelming my packing thoughts recently.

My reading list. That may sound nerdy, and I keep telling myself that maybe it’s best to take one or two books and swap them along the way during my travels or to seek out some local bookshops. I know those are both great ways to discover titles that I might never come across otherwise. (Trying to find a good book abroad can be full of pleasant surprises—like when Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, appeared to me amongst an overabundance of trashy beach novels like a diamond in the rough on a small beach in West Africa.)

But I’m too afraid to bank on that for five months of oversees time and here’s why; the reading I do during my travels has always been an extremely crucial part of my experience for three reasons. First, I try to take some books that relate to the place I’m visiting, to get me excited and engaged in the culture and history and so I feel informed about my surroundings. Second, I think reading is an important mood-setter, a way to get me into the adventurous and thoughtful spirit. And lastly, at the very least, it’s sometimes a needed escape when everything goes wrong and I need a reset button.

The second reason is likely the closest to why I feel the need to stress and meticulously plan out the books I take with me. See, I remember exactly which ones I was reading in which places I’ve travelled around the world, because they played such important roles in what I was thinking about at those times, and how I reacted to my surroundings at any given moment. It was The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, on my first substantial trip abroad. Then Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett on the next. And during my latest trip abroad, What is the What by Dave Eggers.

These books all have something key in common. They all take place outside of my home country, the United States, and they’re all exciting and full of adventure. But more importantly, they all made me reflect critically on my experiences. Through their cultural portrayals, they made me consider my own perceptions of the cultures I was in, and imagine an outsider looking in on mine. My reading time made me more tolerant, more curious, more passionate, and more excited about being where I was.

So, it’s proving more difficult to settle this aspect of my packing list than I would like, though I think it’s an important process to go through.

I’m pretty sure about one in my stack so far: Indonesia etc. by Elizabeth Pisani. There are so few books written about the country of Indonesia, which I find unbelievable since it happens to be my favourite place in the world. So I couldn’t resist it after finding it on the bookshelf in Barnes and Noble last week. While I was holding the book, the actor who plays Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother walked directly towards me, even making brief eye contact. (The store was in Los Angeles—I’m not making this up). So, this book was clearly meant to be on my selective travel list.

Besides that, and some titles relating to South America (including some by Chilean author Isabel Allende), I’m still waiting for inspiration. I guess I’ve learned that I’m a picky reader, at least while travelling. But I think it’s for good reason. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to travel for many months at a time on various trips, there’s still the sense that the moments I have oversees are limited. I feel most alive while in a new country, trying to navigate my way around new places and a new way of life. It’s scary, inspiring, exciting and full of wonder, so maybe it’s not all that surprising that I look for the qualities to match in my reading list.

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Liza Bayless

Liza is originally from Denver, Colorado, and entering her junior year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where she studies English and Government. At the moment, Liza is on exchange at the University of Playa Ancha in Valparaíso, Chile. Ever wonder what it’s like to study where some of the best wine grows? Read on.

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