There’s nothing more inspirational than a well-written travel book. It can fill you with awe, wonder, and wanderlust. Books make those 10-hour bus rides through Laos more bearable. They get us excited for new destinations and can change our world view. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but my goal this year is to read one book a week (if not more). I go through fits and starts with reading. I’ll read a book or two a week and then won’t pick up another for months. This year I want to be more consistent.
As we make our way through the new year (where did January?), I wanted to share some of my favorite recent reads. These books will inspire, teach, and maybe change your habits so without further ado, the books:
Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden
Recommended to me by a reader of this blog, Marching Powder tells the true story of Thomas McFadden and his time in San Pedro prison in Bolivia. McFadden was an English drug trafficker who ended up in jail after an official he was bribing double-crossed him. While it wasn’t the best-written book I read last year, the storyline is what makes this one of my favorite recent reads. In the book, you learn about life in a prison where inmates bought their own cells (which created a huge class system), made their own drugs (to be sold on the streets), bribed cops, and developed an economy filled with shops, elected officials, and neighborhoods. Rich prisoners were even allowed to leave with a prison escort. McFadden also started leading tours through the prison during his incarceration (they even ended up in Lonely Planet) to backpackers (who for the right price could also stay the night). This is not a story of redemption. It’s one about life in one of the most corrupt prisons in the world. The book is now being made into a movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Before Anthony Bourdain roamed the world without reservations or to places unknown, he was a chef clawing his way through the kitchens of New York City. This book (his first one) is a very well written insider’s account of the restaurant industry. True to form, Bourdain is crass, vulgar, and doesn’t hold anything back. You learn about the drug use in kitchens, the fast pace and dog-eat-dog world of the restaurant business, staff loyalty to chefs (kitchen staff follow the chefs they like), and why there are some foods you should just never order. I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I always enjoy his work, so it was nice to read about his rise to fame. This book was a very fun and interesting read. You’ll never look at restaurants the same way again.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
While this book has nothing to do with travel, it is a wonderfully researched account of how we form habits. Why do we do what we do? Are we hard wired to repeat habits, even when they are bad? How do we break bad habits and form good ones? I read this towards the end of 2014 and it really impacted my life, which is why it is making this book list. We should strive to be better people than we were yesterday. What makes great people so great? They work at it. I believe in self-improvement because being better people makes us better travelers. This bestselling book discusses how we form habits and gives specific strategies about how to break bad habits and start good ones. This book definitely made me rethink many of my habits and is part of the reason why I decided to read more. (For example, I replaced my before-bed TV catch-up time with reading time!)
Choose Yourself! by James Altucher
I became friends with James a few years ago at a mastermind conference I was speaking at in Toronto. He’s an amazing, quirky guy who’s started dozens of finance and tech companies, consulted for the likes of Twitter, made millions, lost millions, and made millions again. His book is about how the new economy has made it easier for people to become their own bosses and put their happiness first. The old economy is rigged, he says. Companies treat workers like an expense, won’t rehire in the new post-financial crisis, and provide very little opportunity for financial independence. Unless you take it upon yourself to choose yourself (i.e. break out of the system and find ways to be independent), you’ll end up in a dead-end job or downsized into oblivion. From tips on starting your own business to advice on picking up a new skill or just figuring out what makes you happy and doing more of that, Choose Yourself is an uplifting book with practical resources on becoming your own boss and taking control of your life.
Turn right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams
This book recounts Adams’ tale of roughing it through Peru in search of little-visited Inca ruins and ancient cities with a surly Indiana Jones-type Australian guide. While most tourists stick to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Adams goes everywhere else, tracing the Incas’ flight into the Andes Mountains after the Spanish invaded their empire. He discovers just how much there is to see in Peru that tourists never visit. In a country filled with Inca ruins, many are still unexcavated and have few tourists. It’s one of best-written tales I read last year and opened me up to a whole new understanding of the Incas. There was a lot about Peru I didn’t know and now I’m even more excited to visit the country someday, follow Adams’ footsteps, and get off the beaten path! I highly recommend you pick this book up.
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald
Journalist Sarah MacDonald writes about her experience moving to India to follow her boyfriend, despite vowing never to return after a visit a few years before (she hated India after her first visit). The book is well written and funny, and features amazing insights into Indian culture and its differences from the West – from family, marriage, and dating to class breakdowns, Sarah shares a lot about her time in the country. In a way, it’s the classic fish-out-of-water tale, but it reminded me of my own experience living in Thailand and having to adapt to Thai culture. I couldn’t put this book down and enjoyed her account of culture shock and how India broke down her preconceived notions of Western versus Indian values. It allowed her to appreciate the best of both worlds.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
I first read this book when it came out in 2003 but after recently rummaging through my book collection at my parents’ house, I picked it up again. The book follows the story of Amir, a wealthy Afghan kid who escapes with his family during the Soviet invasion, grows up in America, and eventually goes back to Afghanistan during Taliban rule to save his friend’s son. Though I read it many years ago, it remains one of my favorite books of all time. Re-reading it made me realize why it was such a phenomenon – it’s beautifully and vividly written with strong characters and a powerful story about grief, guilt, and redemption. Hosseini’s follow up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is just as powerful. If you’ve never read his works, do so.
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
While dense, this book was surprisingly incredibly fascinating. It traces the history of salt and its importance to civilization, ancient empires, and how we were able to explore the world. It’s filled with quirky facts that make you realize how much of our world was influenced by salt. For example, to be “worth one’s salt” means to be worth one’s pay: the word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt (sal). Ancient Romans and soldiers were often paid in salt since it was so valuable. Salt was recommended to me by a number of my friends and it was one of the most fascinating books I read last year. It’s important to know about the world – you can’t understand a place if you don’t understand its past, and this book will explain a lot of the past to you. I liked it so much, I picked up his follow-up book, Cod (about how cod changed the world).
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This book is always on my Top Reads list. A story about following your dreams, this is one of the most widely read books in recent history. The story follows a young shepherd boy traveling from Spain to Egypt after he has a dream telling him he needs to get to Egypt. Along the way, he meets interesting people, learns to follow his heart, go with the flow, and love, and discovers the meaning of life. The book is filled with wonderful and inspirational quotes. My favorite is, “If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man…Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.” A book about following your dreams is perfect for travelers because we certainly are dreamers. I’ve read this book multiple times – it always inspires me to enjoy life and dream more.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M Pirsig
Originally published in 1974, this book has been a classic hit since its release and was a long overdue read for me. I’ve heard people talk about it for years, and it’s highly recommended by Tim Ferriss, another voracious reader I respect. The book follows a father and his young son during a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest. The tale addresses love, growth, discovery, and the meaning of existence. It is one of those deep books that uses travel as a backdrop to make us question why we do what we do, what makes us happy, and how we can be happier. Like The Alchemist, this is an uplifting and inspirational story that makes you want to turn your dreams into a reality. It makes you want to get out there and explore the world, and that’s a message I can always get behind!
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
This book (which inspired the excellent movie of the same name) follows Christopher McCandless after he graduates from college, donates his savings to charity, and sets off across the United States in search of a deeper meaning to life. Sadly, he was tragically found dead by hikers in Alaska after mistakenly eating the wrong type of berries. Not much is known is about his time on the road – McCandless used an alias while traveling (Alexander Supertramp). Krakauer tries to fill in the blanks by using McCandless’ diary and interviewing the few people he met on the road. Much of the book is pure speculation. Regardless, it’s an inspirational story about breaking the mold, following your dreams, and living a more meaningful life (notice a theme on this year’s best books list?!).
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull
I like all books about people who fall in love with Paris, so when this came up in Amazon as a suggested read, I immediately bought it up and wasn’t disappointed. Sarah Turnbull’s visit to the City of Light was supposed to last a week, but she ends up staying permanently with the guy she had traveled to Paris to visit (Paris has that effect on people). This book follows Turnbull’s life in the city as she navigates the highs and lows of trying to fit into a foreign culture while slowly falling more and more in love with it. Its a fish-out-of-water tale and clichéd at many times, but it offers lessons on embracing life in a foreign culture that will never really accept you as one of its own. Funny and witty, I found it to be a fun pager turner. It’s light read so it won’t take long to finish.
As am I reading a lot more this year, I thought it would be fun to start a travel book club. Once a month, I’ll be featuring about five amazing books – some oldies, some recent reads – covering travel, history, fiction, and anything else I think you might enjoy! So, if you want reading suggestions, just click on the big yellow button below and come join the 1,000 people already reading more great books!
This was originally published February 2, 2015 on Matt Kepnes’ travel blog Nomadic Matt.
You may visit him online or follow him on Twitter @nomadicmatt.
Matt Kepnes is the Ney York Times bestselling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.