Header images courtesy of Matias North (via Unsplash)
The best books can make you forget the very chair on which you’re resting, transporting you to faraway lands amongst foreign people with just a few scribbles of ink on sheets of paper. It’s amazing how a jumble of twenty-six letters can conjure such complex landscapes and capture ephemeral emotions so vividly.
In a time when mechanisms of the mind have to act as the chief mode of memory-making, getting lost between the pages of a book serves both as intellectual escapism, and a means to fulfil your civic duty of social distancing. Here are 10 fantastic books that will take you travelling as you while away the days.
Reading Year of the Monkey is like playing audience to the internal musings of Patti Smith, the famed punk poet laureate whose written work is as poignant as her music. Smith brings you along on her road trips to Arizona, California, Virginia, and Kentucky, where she visits friends, observes passers-by, and contemplates life. The style of writing is dreamy and somewhat disjointed, making connections as they come rather than presenting you with the finished cake, resplendently iced. For ease of visualisation, polaroids taken at various stops by the author are used to signpost the chapters.
This novel takes place in the Latin Quarter of early twentieth-century Barcelona, a backdrop that is as beguiling as the plot itself. As you follow the journey of the young protagonist Daniel, you are introduced to landmarks in the Spanish capital that actually exist in real life. The magic of the setting plays an integral part in creating the almost gothic vibe of the tale, of forgotten secrets, and forbidden love.
In memory of the late great chef and humanitarian Anthony Bourdain, revisit his culinary adventures in Portugal, Vietnam, Japan, and Mexico, amongst many others in his iconic book, A Cook’s Tour. Bourdain melds his love for cooking and travelling, his fascination with the human condition, as well as his respect for different cultures in a fantastic read that stimulates both the mind and the palette.
An English chef and writer specialising in Chinese cuisine, Fuchsia Dunlop recounts her experience living and travelling in China in the 1990s. Born in Oxford but trained in Chengdu, Dunlop includes many recipes starring ingredients that might strike as strange to those with less adventurous sensibilities, as well as accounts of local delicacies that may seem supremely unappetising.
She nevertheless imparts a sensuality to food as she bravely samples everything offered on the dining table. Another exploration of a place by way of its food, this memoir is a cross-cultural examination of Chinese cuisine that succeeds in engaging the reader without being saturated in sensationalism.
A sort of self-help book for travellers looking to find meaning in the participation of a billion-dollar industry, The Art of Travel aphorises with the help of poets, painters, and philosophers. This is a different kind of travel log, one that doesn’t overly romanticise the yearning for exotic places, but rather explores the motivation behind the phenomenon. You will be left with a better understanding of yourself, and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for purposeful travel.
This wildly popular book by Kevin Kwan with a hugely successful film adaptation is an unlikely resource for travel inspiration, but a fun one nonetheless. Set mostly in Singapore, this novel takes you behind the closed doors of the obscenely wealthy, while giving you a taste of the rich culture of the city as well as its Asian community. Be warned: this read might cause a sudden urge to visit the Lion City.
Set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, this is a novel that explores racial tension in 1970s America. A dash of the fantastical is deftly added to balance the realism at its core, and Lethem’s intricate prose paints a vivid image of urban New York in all its glory. Nostalgia seeps through the tale, as the setting is an ode to Lethem’s own experiences growing up in the area. Quite a dense read belied by a lighthearted premise.
One of the less well-known adult books by Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomin universe, The Summer Book takes place on a semi-deserted island where a child and her grandmother visit every summer to spend time with each other and have adventures. The combination of peaceful solitude and comfortable companionship makes it a particularly fitting book to read, reflecting a yearning for an easily accessible and commonplace yet magical setting, to spend the most cheerful days of the year.
A beautiful rendering of Japanese autumn and inspired by loss, seasoned travel writer Pico Iyer revisits his long-time home and reinserts himself into the rituals of everyday life. An intriguing look into Japanese society, tradition, and the transitory nature of life, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells allows the reader to step into the well-worn shoes of a Japanese local and walk a mile or two.
A witty and whimsical tale of the quintessential American road trip that’s almost 14,000 miles long, this book does not revel in the wonders of travelling but rather the mundane and downtrodden, perhaps more fitting for this particular subject matter. Witty wordsmith Bill Bryson returns to the country of his birth after a 10-year stint abroad, and penned this sarcastic masterpiece of a travelogue, giving the world a glimpse of the relatively unknown side of America that is the Midwest.