OxStu’s top 10 travel reads

Art & Lit Literature

To travel is to submit to a multitude of diverse and fantastic sensations. Whether it is the quiet contemplation of moving over sun-dappled water, the intense consciousness of our smallness that flight inspires, or the existential perspicacity that comes with being sick on a bartender in Ibiza,  travelling affects us about as powerfully as anything we can do as human beings. This is to say nothing of the destinations, the foreign, alien and uncanny cultures that render us vulnerable and powerfully anonymous in equal measure. In travelling, we escape ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves a little lost. Though not all strictly travel writing, these ten books (in no particular order) each have qualities that render them impeccable travel companions. These are books with the power to capture something of what it means to travel and see strange new things, and (more impressively) to set an odds-defyingly romantic tone for an otherwise torturous twelve hour train journey. So, if only for a few hundred pages, ditch the vac reading list; freshers-to-be, put down thy Norton Anthology and indulge in one of these delights.

1. Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 

Aristocrat, writer, poet, pioneering aviator, Air Force hero, author of The Little Prince…forget Kerouac, if you want a real fearless adventurer, Saint-Ex is your (Renaissance) man. Perhaps not ideal in-flight reading for those who fear flying, but if you can handle Saint-Ex’s bafflingly stoical discourses upon the extreme hazards of flying over the Alps for French Aéropostale, the pay-off is a beautifully meditative monologue on our existence sandwiched between earth and sky. Plus, if you can find the Folio Society edition, Linda Kitson’s sparse, spidery ink illustrations (top) perfectly capture the dog-eared, adventurous eloquence of St-Ex’s prose.

2. Lonesome Traveler – Jack Kerouac

…well, maybe don’t forget Kerouac entirely, but, wonderful as it is, do try to resist the temptation of diving straight into On the Road, the travel equivalent of wearing a straw trilby abroad: ubiquitous, predictable and trying just a little too hard. Besides, Lonesome Traveler is arguably the better piece of travel writing, comprised of short, disconnected ‘sketches’, allowing Kerouac to whip from oily docklands, to dusty railway tracks, to desolate mountain top. The latter is a particular highlight, channelling Thoreau to sculpt a beautifully contemplative core to an otherwise idiosyncratically hectic, electric, Kerouacian rampage of a book.

3. Island – Aldous Huxley

Part-shipwreck-yarn, part-diplomatic-subterfuge, part-essay-on-Tantrik-Buddhism, part-utopian-mope, all entirely a work of genius. This is the kind of novel that only Huxley could write, and whilst it lacks the futuristic dazzle of BNWIsland is, for my money, the better novel. Rather than inventing new technologies, here Huxley employs his mighty imagination in melding Eastern and Western philosophies, sciences and beliefs into a stunningly coherent social vision. This is the quintessential primer for a vacation spent watching, pondering and exploring.

4. Good Morning Midnight – Jean Rhys

Stumble around Paris with the best, worst, drunkest flâneur ever committed to paper. Rhys’s trademark gloominess is here frequently alleviated by inspired touches of wry and absurd humour. This is unquestionably a depressing and lonely novel, but Rhys’ tragicomic vignettes of women in ridiculous hats and sinister figures lurking behind Pernods are insidiously fascinating, and draw you through the gloamy labyrinth of Paris like a bipolar Baedeker.

5. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Another alcohol-fuelled international stumble-fest, but one that makes for an interesting contrast with Rhys’. Whereas the latter trades on cynical humour and frank loneliness, Tropic of Cancer is full of generous spirit, reckless abandon and optimism. Miller revels, in page long sentences, in the sensual pleasure of food, drink, and beauty, both bodily and ambient. Miller’s proto-Beat zeal is a perfect catalyst for enjoying the atmosphere of one’s own surroundings when travelling.

6. The Cabala – Thornton Wilder

Get lost among the hazy, crumbling ruins of 1920’s Rome, and discover the enigmatic and faintly ridiculous Cabala, a secret society of intellectual aristocrats with some seriously twisted ulterior motives. Wilder layers Greek mythology, Roman legend, transatlantic intrigue and modern afflictions of the heart in a complex and satisfying vintage of a novel. A period piece certainly, and one that shows its age here and there, but the evocative portrait of Rome that is whipped up is surely timeless, and the absurdly tragic ensemble of Cabalists who, one by one, fall to pieces before our intrepid protagonist, are as memorable and entertaining as anything created by his more celebrated contemporaries of the Jazz Age.

7. Death in the Afternoon – Ernest Hemingway

A contentious book since its publication, Death in the Afternoon is a gruesome, poetic exploration of Spanish bullfighting. Though showing its age in Hemingway’s predictably hot-blooded celebration of the ‘magnificence’ of the sport, the book contemplates far more than merely the morality of bullfighting. After a somewhat repulsive initial hundred or so pages of goring and blood-soaked sand, Death in the Afternoon begins to evolve into a bizarre, sanguinary meditation on the bounds of human physical and mental endurance. This is a book that requires some tolerance and distance, but is ultimately a deeply rewarding exploration of the traditions that separate cultures, and the underlying human experience that unites them. An edition that includes Hemingway’s original black and white photographs is essential.

8. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West

Dame Rebecca’s guide to Yugoslavia is, to paraphrase a great many critics, a really, really, really bloody long book. This is something that even its author readily admitted, writing that “in 1936 [I was moved] to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. Perhaps not the most encouraging of prefaces, but one that does nothing to alter the fact that Black Lamb is one of the most underrated works of the 20th century. What began as an ‘inventory’ of a country expanded not only to brilliantly capture Europe shadowed by war, but also into a compelling portrait of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

 9. The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson

Ignore the lacklustre Johnny Depp film, Hunter S. Thompson’s early work is a masterclass in rum-soaked debauchery and existential dread. Thompson’s evocative portrait of Puerto Rico is characteristically sweaty, seedy and sexy, oscillating between derelict apartments and private islands with a deftness of touch that outstrips even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for sheer sun-spotted ferocity. A good one to vicariously inject a bit of devil-may-care into an otherwise tame poolside escape, without actually having to take enormous quantities of LSD and kidnap a mentally disturbed painter with a penchant for Barbara Streisand. What’s not to love?

10. Zuleika Dobson (An Oxford Love Story) – Max Beerbohm

Missing the dreaming spires already? Beerbohm has you covered. This is a riotously funny little book that squiggles and squirms along, and despite celebrating its centenary in 2011, still feels exceptionally fresh and vibrant. When the eponymous Zuleika arrives in Oxford, love-struck undergraduates begin to drop like flies. Zuleika is all the funnier for the fact that, beneath the archly comic melodrama, lies a surprisingly accurate (and almost accidentally beautiful) portrayal of what it feels like to live and love (with varying degrees of success) in our strange little city.  Beerbohm was the caricaturist par excellence of the early 20th century, and this book, interspersed with his own illustrations, showcases his eye at its keenest and his wit at its sharpest. This is the man that took the piss out of Oscar Wilde and lived to tell the tale, prepare for a tour-de-force in tongue-in-cheek.