Travel Journal

Not All Travel Books Are Guidebooks

The travel books I love read like novels. Not only do they have character and plotting, but there’s also that not-quite-identifiable central yearning that makes them a compelling read — a passion to hurl the story forward. The narrator must have problems — and not just logistical ones, but historical ones, metaphysical ones, personal ones. Just like a novel. This is why Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia ranks among the greatest travel books ever written. He goes on a quest to find the origin of a family heirloom, and he digs digs digs into everything he finds interesting along the way. It’s personal. And yet he makes it vast. And this is also is why William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns is a masterpiece (and one of the greatest love letters ever written to a foreign city). It’s a mystery. It is haunting. He’s on a spiritual quest to find a past that is buried in secret places. There’s adventure, a chase.

All this is to say that good travel writing and good traveling are the same. If there’s a goal, a passion, a point — if there’s a thesis and quest — then the travel raises itself beyond the muck of trophy-hunting tourism. To do this, you have to plug in. You have to do the research. You have to be hungry (or thirsty!). Because even a local guide isn’t going to help if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Travel has to have drive. Then it gets interesting. If you push and ask questions, the world will cough up stories and answers (or at least more questions).

Even though I ostensibly write about food and beverage, I don’t travel without reading something about the place, from the place. A book to bounce the world off of. I’m not talking guide books, I mean books for context and culture. To get the brain swirling. Here are some I’ve chosen for upcoming cities:


Seoul: Arguably Korea’s most famous author, Hwang Sok-Yong’s newest book is out in July.


Singapore: Poh Seng Goh’s 2010 book, If We Dream Too Long, is considered the first truly Singaporean novel.


Tokyo: I haven’t read Murakami in years. I’m interested to see where’s he’s gone since I left off (somewhere around Wind Up Bird Chronicle). Link


Beirut: I’m ready to be taken-in by this National Book Award Finalist — Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.


Beirut II: Love poems by the great Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani

Do you have ‘travel’ books that are important to you? That have changed the way you perceive a city, travel, life? I’d love to hear from you.