Top Ten Travel Books

Top Ten Travel Books: The Mackerel List

23 April 2015

What makes a good travel book?

In honour of World Book and Copyright Day, we at Mackerel decided to scan our bookshelves and develop a list of our Top Ten favourite travel books. These are a mix of fiction, reportage and even sci-fi, but all share common qualities; humour, adventure and human drama.

We’ve also included three Honourable Mentions that are less typical of the ‘travel book’ but still every bit as engaging.

What makes a good travel book? We believe it is a combination of interesting people living against a backdrop of incredible landscapes, their existence embellished with mystery, possibility and romance.

10. The Discoverers - Daniel J. Boorstin

Heavy reading that requires the “dip in and out” method of study. But, oh-so worth-it. This isn’t a textbook that sets out the founding of Bandar Kassim, Singapore or Tasmania in chronological order. This is an elegantly written tome that gives context to the bravado, skullduggery and sheer madness of travellers of yore. It is, after all, “A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself”.

9. Playing Cards in Cairo - Hugh Miles

You could say this is an Eastern exotic equivalent of Bridget Jones’ Diary, told by a straight white male who falls for an Egyptian girl. But, Hugh Miles takes it beyond a mere listing of his flaws and scores. By turns witty and uncompromising, we gain a glimpse into a strata of social life in Cairo that isn’t easily uncovered. Such things are never found in the department stores down the road.

8. Enduring Cuba - Zoë Brân

Not quite your typical Lonely Planet guide, Zoë Brân reveals a multi-faceted side of Cuba rarely seen on the tourist trail. From meeting taxi drivers who are also university professors on the side, to attending a black magic ritual, she rolls a perfect cigar story every time. Packed with historical and social nuggets, the book is made even more compelling when you discover that Zoë is herself a shamanistic practitioner.

7. The complete worst-case scenario handbook - Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

“How to see if you have lost your glasses - Draw 2 circles about the size of a pair of lenses on a piece of paper or cardboard. Use a pin or the tip of a sharp knife to poke at least a dozen small holes inside the circles. Hold the paper to your face and look through the holes.”

Not only does this book make a great gift, it actually is very enjoyable to read. We don’t want to find ourselves within punching distance of an alligator, but if we did, we’d know to sock it in its nose and bloody run. And these days, one could meet a random alligator pretty much anywhere in the world. Right?!

6. Neither here nor there - Bill Bryson

Laugh-a-minute; every sentence equally self-deprecating, complimentary and prickly; accents so clearly written that one can practically hear them even in silent reading. Bill Bryson celebrates stereotypes without being offensive or inciting riots and ethnic cleansing. Few have traversed across Europe as talentedly or light-heartedly.

5. On The Road - Jack Kerouac

“And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West.”

With effortless, rolling prose and a sure narrative voice, Kerouac sparked the birth of generations of writers who, until today, hit the road to breathe in the same air of wanderlust captured in the iconic voice and vagrance of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

4. Lewis Carroll - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

This, to us, falls neatly into the ‘Classic’ category. Lewis Carroll continues to take legions of fans and new readers on a journey that defies the passage of time. Once one finds the underbelly of a city, the mystery dissolves. But, there’s always a nuance or emotion or lesson to be found in Wonderland; whether under a toadstool, in the flaming eyes of a Jabberwock, or in the double entendre of a not-so mad man in a big top hat.

3. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

This is the literary equivalent of Star Wars; in its scope and scale, its interplanetary density and in its lovable characters. But Douglas Adams has a decidedly more lunatic approach to storytelling. His books are rife with triple innuendos, graphically contorted worlds and impossible characters (Slartibartfast, anyone?) If you haven’t read this book, you haven’t really travelled.

2. Travels with Charley in Search of America - John Steinbeck

Charley the giant French poodle is too magnificent to ignore. The book is as much about Steinbeck’s bid to rediscover his homeland as it is about deeply cherishing his dog.

“Charley likes to get up early, and he likes me to get up early, too. And why shouldn’t he? Right after his breakfast he goes back to sleep. Over the years he has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to get me up. He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead. If that doesn’t work he gets a sneezing fit. But perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly beside the bed and start into my face with a sweet and forging look his face; I come out of deep sleep with the feeling of being looked at.”

1. The Great Railway Bazaar - Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is that rarest of travel writers; an honest-to-goodness traveller who manages to merge his personal voice with that of a character in a novel. His penchant for wry dialogue, his refined but accessible attention to detail and his ability to turn the mundane into the memorable with just a few choice words have made him Mackerel’s Number One choice.

Here’s a tidbit from his 1975 novel about arriving by train at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station:

“Singapore Station is scheduled for demolition because its granite frieze of Anglo-Saxon muscle men posed as ‘Agriculture’, ‘Commerce’, ‘Industry’, and ‘Transport’ is thought to be as outmoded as the stone sign on the wall: FEDERATED MALAY STATES RAILWAY. Singapore thinks of itself as an island of modernity in a backward part of Asia, and many people who visit confirm this by snapping pictures of new hotels and apartment houses, which look like jukeboxes and filing cabinets respectively.”

Honourable mentions

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
One quality outshines all others as one reads Thomas Merton: humanity. Not necessarily a Médecins Sans Frontiers type of humanity; rather, a broken humanity that is familiar. One would be hard-pressed not to want to engage in deep thought and reflection as Merton often did.

Southern Mail/Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Kudos to the translators who have been able to deliver de Saint-Exupéry’s magic to countless non-Francophones. He is delicate, sensitive and almost approachable as he, quite literally, flies us over the deserts of North Africa. We thank the heavens for this man who also gave us, ‘Le Petit Prince’.

Afterglobe, a well curated collection of photographs, stories and illustrations by Singaporeans who have travelled the globe and lived to tell the tale. Published once a year, the theme for 2015 is ‘Seasons.’
Available here:

Photos & Text: Marc