I love to read. When I was a child I had to be called to dinner at least three times before I put down a book, and not much has changed. So when a good friend and reader of A Lady in London emailed me saying “I do wonder what books you read when you travel. This comes up when I see your beautiful photos of bookstores and I wonder what you got,” I figured it was time to share my top picks for books to read while traveling.
21 Books to Read While Traveling
The following is a country-by-country list of some of my favorite books. I’ve fallen in love with them at home or on the road, and they’ve given me insight into the countries they’re set in. Whether written by locals or expats, in the present or the past, they’ve inspired me to travel and given me a greater understanding of the places and periods they capture. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
1. United Kingdom – Pride and Prejudice
Choosing a book for the country I live in is difficult. But given I’ve read Pride and Prejudice more times than any other book it has to go on the list. This Jane Austen classic is not only one of the greatest love stories of all time, but also an incredibly good novel in terms of structure and style. You can get it here.
2. United States – Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Choosing a book for my country of birth is equally difficult. But since I’m writing about books to read while traveling, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America seems the most fitting. The story of the author’s journey with his dog, Charley, in 1960 captures the spirit of the great American road trip and gives a good overview of the country’s regional cultures. You can get it here.
3. India – Shantaram
If there’s one book I couldn’t put down on my travels, it was Shantaram. This epic story of an escaped Australian convict hiding out in Bombay is one of the most captivating I’ve ever read. Make sure to clear your calendar for at least a week before you start it. You can get it here.
4. Chile – The House of the Spirits
Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was my introduction to magical realism. It started me on the path to reading all kinds of South American literature, including a few efforts in Spanish. Packed with everything from an otherworldly clairvoyant to a beauty with green hair, the novel seamlessly blends the everyday with the supernatural. You can get it here.
5. Spain – The Shadow of the Wind
Speaking of Spanish, I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind in its original language. It took me a while, but it was worth the effort to uncover the mysteries of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. You can get it here.
6. Colombia – Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera is another novel I read in Spanish. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic took me through a whirlwind of magical realism and tumultuous love triangles in what is now known as one of Colombia’s great epics. It’s one of the best books to read while traveling in South America. You can get it here.
7. Angola – A General Theory of Oblivion
I just finished reading A General Theory of Oblivion, a fascinating book about a woman who barricades herself into her apartment at the dawn of Angolan independence and remains bricked in for 30 years. It’s an emotional ride through individual and international affairs, and inspired by a true story. You can get it here.
8. France – A Moveable Feast
I feel a bit guilty choosing a book written by an expat when there are so many amazing ones written by French natives. But Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was one of those books I read at the exact time of life when it had the maximum impact. I had just spent a summer living and working in Paris during my university years, and the book’s celebration of being young and poor in the city really resonated with me. You can get it here.
9. Czech Republic – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Before I studied abroad in Prague I was required to read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The book wound its way through everything from philosophy to relationships, creating a powerful narrative that my classmates and I didn’t stop discussing for the duration of our time there. You can get it here.
10. Japan – Memoirs of a Geisha
Japan is another country with a rich literary canon that I feel sheepish diverting from. I’ve buried myself in many a Murakami, but if there’s one book I couldn’t put down it was American writer Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The moving story of a young geisha in Kyoto is a vivid coming-of-age portrait set in a transitional period for the country. While it’s been criticized for misrepresenting the realities of geisha life, it’s a powerful book as a work of fiction. You can get it here.
11. Nigeria – The Fishermen
The Fishermen is a novel about brotherhood, and a turbulent tale of young siblings growing up in Nigeria. While tragic throughout, it’s beautifully written and offers hope and redemption in the end. You can get it here.
12. Germany – All the Light We Cannot See
Set between Germany and France during World War II, All the Light We Cannot See is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Anthony Doerr’s short chapters pulled me through the whole novel in a few days and left me thinking about it long after I finished. I recently got it for my boyfriend, and it was one of the books he read while traveling on our recent trip to Nepal. He loved it as much as I did. You can get it here.
13. Ireland – The Green Road
I know I should probably put in something Joyce for Ireland, but if I’m honest I struggle to get into his books. On the other hand, Anne Enright’s The Green Road has some of the most eloquent prose I’ve ever read. Her beautiful descriptions of an Irish family’s complex relationships left me itching to get my hands on everything else she’s ever written. You can get it here.
14. Italy – A Room with a View
E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View transported me straight into Edwardian-era Florence. While it deals with the intricacies of British social interactions, I love how it paints a portrait of the Italian city and the way foreign visitors approached travel during that period. You can get it here.
15. New Zealand – The Luminaries
The thing about Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is that it has a bit of everything. There’s harsh reality, supernatural elements, and lots of loose ends. Set against the backdrop of the New Zealand gold rush, this complex novel had me turning pages well past my bedtime. You can get it here.
16. Congo – Heart of Darkness
I’m not sure what this says about me, but in high school my favorite book was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was fascinated, repulsed, intrigued, and awed in equal measure by this journey deep into the Congo. Memories of Kurtz still haunt me after all these years, which is a sure sign of a good book. You can get it here.
17. Greece – The Iliad
I forced myself to read The Iliad a few years ago after feeling like my Western education was missing a trick without it. But rather than being the tough slog I imagined, it turned out to be a beautiful work of poetry that I could read again and again. And since the first English translation by a woman was published a couple years ago, I think I just might (it helps that it’s sitting on my bookshelf already). You can get it here.
18. Zimbabwe – We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is another book I still think about despite having finished it over a year ago. This coming-of-age story that begins in Zimbabwe is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, and offers a look inside the everyday life of a country usually talked about in political terms. You can get it here.
19. Russia – Anna Karenina
I took two amazing Russian history classes during my university years, and if there’s one book that sums up 19th century Russia for me it’s Anna Karenina. Not only is it an amazing novel, but it also manages to perfectly capture the political, economic, and social landscape of its time. You can get it here.
20. Mexico – The Power and the Glory
Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a haunting portrayal of societal struggles and religious strife. Set in 1930s Mexico, the book covers a range of human emotions and experiences as it works its way to a moving conclusion. You can get it here.
21. Canada – Alias Grace
When I think of Canadian literature, I think of Margaret Atwood. And one of my favorite books of hers is Alias Grace. Based on a true story of a woman convicted of a crime, the novel delves into issues of innocence and guilt and leaves the ending as open as the debate. You can get it here.
What are your top picks for books to read while traveling?
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