There is no writing without reading: Without these five books, I might have been able to write my first one, but I would have been missing some major inspiration — not to mention some beautiful examples of writing about place:
Journeys by Stefan Zweig The term ‘inveterate traveler’ doesn’t go far enough to describe Stefan Zweig, writes translator Will Stone in the introduction to this series of Zweig’s short essays on his travels through Europe. For Zweig, the Vienna-born novelist, journalist, biographer, and playwright, who was the most widely translated writer in the world in the 1920s, travel was ‘not a departure from home, but a home in itself.’ At first blush, some of the essays in this collection — particularly his sketches of Seville and Italy — seem bogged down by too many poetic flourishes and too much baroque romanticism. Beneath the flourishes, though, is a sense of loss and a longing for a vanished period. The high point, and maybe the most timeless piece, in the collection is To Travel or Be ‘Travelled,’ Zweig’s 1926 diatribe against the soullessness of mass tourism: “All the strangeness,” he writes, “all the distinctiveness of a country will utterly escape you as soon as you are led and your steps are no longer guided by the real god of travelers, chance.”
To Chicago and Back by Aleko Konstantinov
The first book about travel to the West ever published in Bulgaria, this is the story of writer/lawyer/translator/journalist/political activist Aleko Konstantinov’s journey from Bulgaria to Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. A keen observer with a Rousseauian wit, Konstantinov writes about traveling by ship from France to New York, along with his visits to Niagara Falls (‘An endless reverence was painted on the faces of all…As if they were standing not before God’s work, but before God himself!’) and the Bulgarian exhibit at the World’s Fair. His rendering of the ‘developed’ world is both breathtaking and hilarious, and it inspired a lasting interest in Chicago among Bulgarian readers: To this day the city has one of the largest populations of Bulgarian immigrants in the United States.
More of a trip to the underworld than a travel memoir in the traditional sense, George Orwell’s first-person account of living and working among the desperately poor in two of the world’s most glamorous cities is both a masterpiece of immersive journalism and a searing social critique. Orwell’s own travails — including a stint as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel kitchen reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential — are as riveting as those of the people he meets. Whether he’s describing a stargazing street artist or a Russian rifleman turned unemployed waiter, Orwell’s tone is clear, honest, and never patronizing.
The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
“There are experiences so wonderful, so unique, that the thought of prolonging them seems like the basest form of ingratitude,” writes Henry Miller in this ecstatic chronicle of his travels in Greece on the eve of World War II. Often lyrical, occasionally rambling, Miller’s narrative is a nonlinear ode to a country, to a people (including a gorgeous character sketch of the poet George Katsimbalis, for whom the book is named), and to travel itself. While it would be easy to accuse him of idealizing, or navel-gazing, or raising his surroundings to ridiculous heights, it’s clear that Miller is here to learn, that he’s open to letting his surroundings transform him. His exuberance in the act of moving through a place ‘filled with a sense of eternality’ and ‘pregnant with heroic deeds’ is real.
Stasiland by Anna Funder
A book about time travel rather than physical travel in which Australian author Anna Funder attempts to understand the German Democratic Republic through the stories of victims, perpetrators, and people caught in between. With journalistic rigor and genuine compassion, Funder paints an honest, devastating, often surreal picture of life in a Cold War-era dictatorship. Narrating through the prism of her own experience of living in Berlin in the 1990s, she also captures the disorientation so many Germans felt after the Wall came down.