I believe reading about the cultural nuances and the history that shapes a country is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves before traveling—it allows for more informed and considerate travels, as well as a deeper experience in the country. These books are hand-picked and provide cultural and political history of new countries, often woven through a story or personal narrative. Start by jumping to a region, then select your country, or browse the master list below the images. Below these links are general books about travel and the travel experience, but not a particular place—they are a good place to start if you’re looking for pre-travel inspiration, or a general understanding of development issues, geo-politics, and more. :)
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When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. ~ Christopher Morley
Inspire Pre-Travel Wanderlust
- A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani: A round the world overland memoir with a focus on the human experiences and cultural discoveries from the author—both parts enjoyable and humorous.
- Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert: A personal memoir (and now a Hollywood film with Julia Roberts) , this book is a light and easy read—some people hate the narrator, while other women have been truly inspired to take a year off and explore. I found it an enjoyable beach read and far better than the movie.
- National Geographic Simply Beautiful Photographs by Annie Griffiths: For a dose of photo inspiration, this coffee-table book is stunning and paging through this will spark new ideas on places to travel or volunteer.
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Top notch inspirational reading if you’re thinking of heading out on a trip—autobiographical stories from a range of vagabond travelers on their journeys—diverse perspectives on long-term travel.
- The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner: A former NPR foreign correspondent, the author travels around the world throughout each country looking for the origins of happiness.
- **The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: Train-travel enthusiasts most appreciate this fascinating account of the author’s journey across the world, but it’s a fantastic read for anyone planning a trip and looking for itinerary inspiration or even arm chair travelers looking for a well written story.
- The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World by Baggett, Corbett, and Pressner: Great beach reading for any woman feeling a quarter-life crisis coming and/or prepping for a round the world trip. The friends traveled the world together and offer up cohesive personal journeys and from one year on the road.
Geo Politics, History, and Culture
- Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Kindle) by Jared Diamond: A thinky read taking a global look at the geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.
- Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (Kindle) by Robert Kaplan: A look at how the geopolitical focus of the world in the 21st Century will shift away from the West and toward the countries on the Indian Ocean.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Kindle) by Robert Persig: I read this is college and appreciated more on the road as I was on my own journey. The other nicely unifies philosophy, adventure and mystery into a palatable format and you’ll take even more out of this book the second time you read it. Pirsig’s journey across the United States by motorcycle is not a light read by any means; he delves into questions of sustainability and quality and the US is a mere backdrop to the philosophical musings.
- The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan (Kindle) by Winston Churchill: A historical look at the Middle East situation in the late 1800s.
Among the Russians by Colin Thubron: The author shares his compelling road-trip through communist Russia, Siberia, Georgia, Armenia, and along the Silk Road. His journey is both parts insightful and educational as the reader is taken through how history has shaped this region of the world.
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy: The novel takes place in post-war New Orleans and to start and then wanders the United States as the character searches for some unknown. While falling into the camp of an existentialist novel, it bridges the gap from esoteric into an enjoyable read.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: A deceptively simple story line weaves together one of the most fascinating eras in American history—the roaring 20’s jazz age with an almost love story. Fitzgerald’s mastery of the English language create an evocative portrait of the American Dream, beautifully written, thematically solid from a literature point of view, and a piece an insight into American culture.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (FILM) by Harper Lee: A standard read for high schoolers in America, if you’re traveling to the country, particularly the south, read this book for some insight into the racial tensions and transitional policies in the American South during the mid-60s. The story is told from the perspective of a child, but explores some much large themes. Also, a film rarely does a book justice, but Gregory Peck’s performance, alongside young Scout, the narrator, stand out in American cinematic history.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Set in rural Florida, Hurston’s novel is controversial because of her choice to use local black dialects from the time (much like Tony Morrison’s novels). The novel delves into black African American culture in a way unlike any other writer, not from the racial black-white perspective, but instead through the eyes of her characters, who happen to be black and southern.
- The Secret Life of Bees film (BOOK) by Sue Monk Kidd: A very light and easy read, this novel tells a sweet story of a young white girl who finds a family and a life with an eccentric black family, a recipe for tension in South Carolina in the 1960s.