Surely one of the best budget activities you can enjoy as a traveller is settling down for a good old read.
It’s free, it’s easy and you can enjoy it in innumerable places.
Not often is it that we are blessed with the time to read almost as much as we want, when we want, yet long term travel provides exactly this sort of opportunity.
Personally, one of the great joys about travelling for me is the time it allows me to catch up on all the books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.
My simple year living on the remote Nicaraguan island of Little Corn, in particular, hugely developed my literary back catalogue, which despite being an English literature graduate was probably not as extensive at should have been!
Following that and many other long-term travel hours devoted to worlds that live within pages, I bring you my list of the 21 greatest books to read while travelling.
- Your Unforgettable Africa Itinerary
- Ultimate South East Asia Packing List
- Solo Female Travel in the Middle East : What To Expect
This page contains affiliate links meaning Big World Small Pockets may receive a small commission on any purchases at no extra cost to you.
A Word About the Greatest Books to Read While Travelling
Needless to say, book preferences are a very personal thing and this list is my list of fav travel books.
This doesn’t mean you’ll like them all or agree with it totally, so let’s say we can think about it more as a springboard for discussion than a concrete, immovable given.
FYI. the comments box at the bottom of this article provides the perfect place to do just that!
But such a list can be a useful starting point – a place to get some ideas and delve deeper into the world of travel reading for yourself.
I’ve tried to include a range of books and styles in the list – from fiction to non-fiction.
Some of the books are about journeys and parts of the globe, some are just great works that get us thinking about ourselves and the world around us.
I love a good physical book in my hand, but do know many of you love your eReaders, or even an audiobook (indeed I absolutely love my Amazon Audible) so whichever way you want to get hold of these books, you can click on the titles to even buy or download them.
All that’s left for me to do is say… Enjoy!
#1 A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author: Bill Bryson
Often with plenty of time on your hands, travel is a great time to ponder many big questions, and what could be bigger than the nature of the universe?!
Perfect for answering many of the science questions related to our existence and that of the world around us, Bill Bryson’s book explains many complex and current theories in delightfully simple and jovial terms.
He brings to life many colourful historical characters from the world of science and cleverly shows us the interwoven nature between the human and the scientific.
As such, he wonderfully illustrates science not as a great objective, immutable truth, but as an evolving field of exploration and theory, devised and constructed by humans.
This leads his readers to wonderfully ask questions about the nature of knowledge itself, including how we know and why we know what we do, as well as what we know.
#2 Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A good friend lent me this book when I first heading off to Australia from the UK 2 years ago and told me to read it.
It was the first thing I opened when I arrived in Cairns one sweaty, summer September day and, under the shadow of serious jet lag, I barely put it down for the 4 days it took me to read.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a spellbinding novel with all the hallmark features of what I define as a good book – wonderful, believable characters, delicious turns of phrase, a foreign landscape brought to life and sophisticated undertones of a factual geopolitical or social complexity.
Set within the Nigerian civil war of the late sixties, this novel introduced me to a whole horrific incident in history I knew nothing about.
Brilliantly bringing into view the unfolding political events through the lens of the personal, the narrative of this novel is fictional, but the events on which it is based are certainly real.
If a novel doesn’t make you ask questions, then it’s not worth reading and Half of a Yellow Sun, instantly sent me running to learn more from Wikipedia.
Sadly they’ve made a movie out of this novel, which is awfully done, so please don’t watch it or let it spoil your perception.
The reading of Half of a Yellow Sun is a brilliant journey – you don’t need anything else.
#3 Into the Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer
An absolute classic within backpacker circles, this does not dampen or undermine the brilliance of this true-life story as told by journalist Jon Krakauer.
Piecing together the life of a young man from the US, Christopher McCandless, who was found dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska after many years of living “on the road” without possessions, Into the Wild constructs a probable version of the last few years of his life.
It also expounds on McCandless’ motivations for doing so, in particular, giving away his money and ceasing contact with his family.
Putting into words what many would be unable to understand, this book touched a real nerve for me, as I’m sure it would with many young, western travellers.
Without ever directly saying it, the book brilliantly pinpoints the almost indescribable urge for realness, grittiness, rawness and truth that many seek away from our plastic commercial lives.
It is both an inspiration and a warning, which is why it’s part of my 21 great books to read while travelling.
#4 Long Walk to Freedom
Author: Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s famous and lengthy autobiography tells the tale of this political leader’s journey out of imprisonment and onto victory.
Without a doubt, this is a tale of patience, virtue and courage that few would have the strength and moral rigidity to compete with.
An inspiring man and a figurehead against racial oppression, reading Mandela’s words cannot help but inspire.
A great book if you are heading to Southern Africa, Long Walk to Freedom casts an enlightening ray on the cultural history and complexity of this region.
It is also a great reminder of how many endure life’s hardships with dignity and grace and it really puts into perspective what the definition of hardship might be.
Even on those travel days when you’re feeling blue, this book is sure to make you take stock.
Author: Patricia Grace
This was actually a book that I read in the final year of my undergraduate degree, in a module called Postcolonial Literature, but don’t let that put you off!
Based in New Zealand, this fascinating and original novel is heart-warming, deeply saddening and beautifully written.
Set within a Maori community, fighting developers on their land, this story is complex and sophisticated yet wonderfully simple, all at the same time.
Potiki eloquently explores many of the issues of identity, power and knowledge existent in places where first nation communities live.
Definitely a great read if you are visiting New Zealand, Potiki also highlights many cultural topics that are relevant to other countries with indigenous populations including Australia, Canada and South America, to name but a few.
#6 Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Interacting with, and reflecting on, different languages, cuisines and cultures as we travel around the globe, can also help us to reflect on our own.
Very often, as part of this process, we begin to unravel what we see as “normal”, as quite the opposite.
For me as a Brit, never was the culture of my northwestern European land examined more intelligently than in the work of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.
Remains of the Day is this author’s 3rd novel and is probably his most successful to date, having won the Man Booker Prize in its year of publication.
Born in Japan, but raised in the UK, Ishiguro’s position as a both cultural “outsider” and “insider” gives him a unique vantage point from which to describe and question Britain’s cultural complexities.
This is done brilliantly in Remains of the Day, as the author shines a light on the political and social world of post-war Britain through the narrative of Stevens, a devoted butler in one of the country’s former aristocratic estates.
I wept like a child at the end of this book and imagine I would do so every time I read it even if that was 100 times.
Remains of the Day is touching, delicate, sophisticated and exquisitely formed.
Regardless of whether you are British or not, this is an endearing and enlightening story for anyone travelling anywhere!
#7 The Power of Now
Author: Eckhart Tolle
Again, this is a rather predictable classic on any traveller reading list, but not without reason!
A life-changer for many, this book brilliantly expounds a number of truths that are designed to help us and awaken us.
It tells of Tolle’s own transformation out of depression and disillusionment and is a wonderfully upbeat, energetic and life-affirming read.
Less self-help and more insight, I read this book in Little Corn Island when I saw it lying on the bed of a friend.
I’d wanted to read The Power of Now for ages by this point and came into my life at the perfect time.
Highly recommended for seekers everywhere
#8 The Teachings of Don Juan
Author: Carlos Castaneda
Written by anthropological Masters student, Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan, was initially submitted for his thesis at the University of California.
This book would make particularly insightful read for anyone travelling in Latin America as, set within the Mexican desert, it is the real-life account of when Castaneda went to visit and study Don Juan – a self-proclaimed Yaqui Indian Sorcerer.
Magic and shamanism combine in what is part-study and part-account of an alternative way of knowing and being.
Eye-opening, engaging and remarkable, this is a spiritual journey laid bare.
It’s a fascinating and highly unique time of book, which I devoured, along with its subsequent books with great thirst.
Like all the best reads, it calls much of what we know into question, both through Castaneda’ s own voice, aswell as our own, which is why it’s on this list of the best books to read while travelling.
#9 Way of the Peaceful Warrior
Author: Dan Millman
As things often do when you put them on paper, certain themes seem to lump themselves together in one spot.
So true to form, here is another “self-help” book making it into my list of 21 greatest books to read while travelling.
The Way of the Spiritual Warrior is a very easy and accessible introduction to a story about gaining happiness and fulfilment, about questioning our existence and the world around us.
Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, it’s another good one to get us thinking about some deeper things beyond our daily humdrum, which makes it a good travel book.
Again, the film is awful and does this book a great injustice, so please don’t judge a book by its film!
Instead, grab a copy and have a read!
It might tell you things you already know, things you’ve forgotten or things you’ve been looking for.
I do have to say I took up running straight after finishing this!
#10 Wild: An Elemental Journey
Author: Jay Griffiths
This book was bought online, as a beautiful gift for me by a great friend I met travelling, and then sent to me at home.
It arrived there not long after I did and was such a joy to read with the post-travelling blues in full force around me.
Wild: An Elemental Journey is a book like no other.
Part autobiographical, part anthropological, part personal travel journal, part political talking journalist, this multi-genre epic is a stomping great celebration of the why, where, how and what we travel, particularly as women.
Its author is an inspiring, brave and intelligent soul who pens, through poetic description and specific study, her experiences living in a multitude of variant climates with different indigenous groups of people across the world.
It is a pioneering book that evades categorisation and description, as does its author, and her intention, in equal measure.
Instead of setting out questions and answering them, Wild: An Elemental Journey is an exploration of wildness, of language, of the sublime, of being on the edge, of struggle, of fight and of survival.
It is raw and rich.
It is educational and environmental.
And it’s highly, highly entertaining.
#11 Last Orders
Author: Graham Swift
Another one of my all-time favourite books and Man Booker winner to boot, Last Orders is an amazingly moving tale that marks out the extraordinary in the ordinary, the wonderful in the everyday.
Set in the UK, this is a tale that provides a wonderful insight into British culture, but again allows us to translate this to other situations across the globe as we remember how magical the everyday can be and how important simply human connections are to us all.
#12 God of Small Things
Author: Arundhati Roy
The book that really made me want to travel to India, the smells, tastes and sounds of this country literally leap off the pages of this incredible book.
If you want to get utterly lost and wrapped up in a family story set in one of the world’s most populated and diverse countries, look no further than God of Small Things.
#13 Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World
Author: Tim Marshall
This is one of my latest reads and, managing to tick so many of my good boxes, I absolutely loved it.
A bit of sociology, a bit of politics with some history and geography thrown in for good measure, not to mention cartography and culture, this fascinating book looks at how the boundaries and borders or several states (whether manmade or natural) has created their respective concepts, strategies and approaches to nationhood.
If you want to learn more about how and why global politics functions as it does in today’s world, this book brings a fresh new angle to this discourse.
#14 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
The author you must read if you’re travelling to South America, especially the country of his birth, Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the king of Latin literature.
He is also the king of a literary style known as magic realism, as his interweaving of fact and fiction, dream and reality, all set to the backdrop of a steamy tropical heat, captures the atmosphere of this part of the world like no one else.
With a large canon, there’s many books of his to choose from, but my favourite One Hundred Years of Solitude is a real tour de force.
#15 Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Author: Reni Eddo-Lodge
What to say about this powerful wake-up call of a book?
Only, read it!
#16 Midnight’s Children
Author: Salmon Rushdie
Another author in the magic realism genre, and one of India’s most famous writers, no list of the best books to read while travelling would be complete without mentioning Salman Rushdie.
He captures the spirit of his homeland and its history like no other, weaving together the personal and the political seamlessly and powerfully, so that we don’t even realise he’s doing it until we’re deep in, invested, trapped in the web of the novel and unable to wrench ourselves free.
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
An intriguing insight into the course of human history and our development as a species, I loved this book, which I actually listened to care of Amazon Audible.
A heavy read, this is one to get you teeth stuck into, as Harari pieces together his perspective in an intricate and informative way.
I love how this book challenges and clarifies so much.
I felt like it brought the many pieces of a puzzle together in my brain in a wholly satisfying way.
#18 Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Made famous by the TV series, this is one of Atwood’s great classics and its dystopian perspective is utterly chilling as it slowly unfurls before us.
Not a feel-good read, this is nevertheless an important literary work by a strong female writer that resonates deeply with our time.
#19 Running in the Family
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Part autobiography, part fiction, this memoir set in Sri Lanka brings questions of identity to the fore.
Challenging the rigid concept of identity across many fields, including those of narrative forms and as well nations, cultures and personal history, the fluidity of the perspective Ondaatje brings us is reflected in this fast-moving text, where we are literally made to feel like we are running in (or at least through) the family.
#20 Ireland to India with a Bicycle
Author: Dervla Murphy
I was told to read this by an Irish friend of mine when I asked about strong female travellers he found inspiring.
And this real-life account by Murphy is nothing if not utterly inspiring.
I tell you what travellers, we sure got it easy these days!
#21 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Author: Elif Shafak
And finally we come to the newest book on this list.
Published in 2019 by Turkish writer Elif Shafak, this incredible novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Bringing to light characters and stories that sit on the fringes of society, this novel also takes a keen look at the Turkish Government and in doing so brings notions of what we do and don’t see, what lies in the shadows and what comes to light – both in the personal and the political spheres – under investigation.
PIN IT TO PINTEREST!
So that’s my list of the 21 greatest books to read while travelling.
Do you agree with the list?
Have any to add?
Do let me know all in the comments box below…
10 thoughts on “21 Greatest Books to Read While Travelling”
And let’s not forget ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed!
I haven’t actually read that Jo, but it’s now going on the list! Thanks for the suggestion 🙂
I have Indian Authors in my list of reads usually. Yet, These days I am reading Mindsets by Carol Dweck and next up after it is Lust for Life – Irving Stone
Infact I wrote a blog post on best reads for 2016 too – quite a while ago.
Loved your collection 🙂 We could someday have a book exchange or a blog collaboration – please feel free to DM me or email on my address as listed in this comment 😉
– Sane Tripper
Sounds like a great idea Nikita – maybe a collab post with lots of bloggers suggesting their favourite travel reads. Ooooh, I’m getting onto it …
Sounds like a great idea.
Let’s take this forward on Facebook and connect with other bloggers we know.
Super idea Nikita, I’m in!
I really enjoyed Honeymoon with My Brother: A Memoir by Franz Wisner.It’s a great light read after you’re recovering from a heavy, emotional read. It had me laughing and enjoying the pure love and brutal honesty of the brothers. My husband enjoyed it too and passed it on to his own brother.
Wonderful recommendation Sandra, I’ll be sure to look out for that one – thanks for the tip off 🙂
adorable article thanks for sharing.
Thank you Laiza 🙂