|To me, books are as important as water, air, and food. I would be a sad fellow indeed without them, and this has been true for as long as I can remember. They are as rivers flowing through a universal mind that doesn’t know the bounds of time. I can be with the dead as easily as the living—Homer or Stephen King, Sri Aurobindo or Isabel Allende, Wallace Stegner or Jan Morris, Mary Shelley or Redmond O’Hanlon. Books are the aqua vita of the spirit; they form a kind of background radiation against which I measure my life and my endeavors. They buck me up when I’m down, inspire me out of torpor, galvanize me when I am ready to walk the fire.Of course, most books don’t live up to the high bar of “Books to Live By,” but in this desultory list, I will tell you which I think do, or which come close, or which were just plain old fun to read. I hope you will share your favorite books with me, and tell me in a few sentences why they changed the fabric of your life. Or made you switch jobs, raise a child, go to Ghana, join a monastery, enlist in the navy, run for office, or…you fill in the blank.
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Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey
White Shadows in the South Seas by Frederick O’Brien
|The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell
I can’t think of a better book to travel around Greece with, which is exactly what I did, sharing it with my aunt and mother chapter by chapter as we island-hopped with my wife and daughters. Of course thus inspired I am reading Durrell’s novels about Alexandria, Egypt.
| Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
An incandescent book about Greece and the Greeks that still rings true today. I had forgotten what a good writer Miller was!
|The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton
I read this while boning up on things Greek—a most rewarding intellectual journey, and a reminder of the riches that have come before us—thousands of years before us! Inspired by Hamilton, I couldn’t help marveling while I tread the Acropolis and the ruins of Delos that for its inhabitants, the birth of Jesus was in the far future.
| The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Must-reading for anyone interested in travel to Europe, for anyone interested in the human spirit, inter-generational understanding, the perspective of history, and racial amnesia. The horrors of World War I are a real awakening, and will have a dampening effect on your own whining and complaining. This book’s fictional reading companion should be Pat Barker’s superb trilogy, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, andThe Ghost Road. Many of the real-life people in Fussell’s book show up in Barker’s harrowing novels.
| Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travel through America’s Southwest by Tom Miller
This delightful book by the Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy, The Panama Hat Trail, and the editor of Travelers’ Tales Cuba, will give hours of pleasure not only to those who live in the marvelous Southwest, but to those who have adopted it as their own after a visit or two.
|Home from the Sea: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Richard A. Bermann
This is a lovely and imaginative recreation of the last two years of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life in Samoa, where he died in 1894. Anyone who grew up reading books such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island will enjoy reading about the author, a truly fascinating guy, and his life in Samoa as a Scottish expatriate and would-be meddler in Samoan politics. It is also worth reading as a portait of a waning south sea culture.
| Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
A poignant and powerful little book, intended to be her last. Full of highly readable history and observations on empire (her trademark), but also on the traveler’s soul and the span of the life journey.
| From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman
Written in 1989 and winner of the National Book Award, you couldn’t find a better book to help sort out in your mind what is going on in the Middle East today. Staggeringly good. One of those books which will change your mind about, well, just about everything. Makes you deeply aware of the abysmally shallow level of media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues.
| We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitz
A mind-bender of a book. If you care about genocide, racism, or you love Africa, you’ve got to read this book about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. You will be utterly dismayed by UN, European, and US inaction, and you will fall over faint with the beauty of those who remained human while the Beast stalked this beautiful little country.
| How to Manage Your Dick: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self by Sean Joseph O’Reilly
Disclosure: Sean is my older brother, who works with me at Travelers’ Tales; I wrote the introduction to this book under the pseudonym B.A. Boone. This is an outrageous, one-of-a-kind book written by one of the strangest people I’ve ever met. After you read it, you will wonder why phrases such as “peace process,” “anger management,” “sexual addiction,” and a host of others are even used, when leaders instead should be talking about Dick Management in national affairs, educational policy, and matters of crime and punishment.
| Scott’s Last Journey by Peter King (Editor)
I started reading this at a friend’s house recently and couldn’t put it down. It’s a well-done combination of the journal entries of Robert Falcon Scott on his doomed race to the South Pole, along with wonderful expedition photographs and very good contextual commentary on the part of the editor. My God Victorians knew how to suffer!
| Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
If you haven’t read any of the huge numbers of books out now on Shackleton’s desperate South Pole voyage, read this one first. My mother used to rave about it when I was small, and when I finally read it, I had to agree with her. A testament to courage and human will.
| Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
This account of Wallace Stegner’s boyhood on the U.S.-Canadian border taught me more about western American history than anything I’ve read. You don’t have to be a Stegner fan (I am) to love this book.
| Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba by Tom Miller
I read this book while traveling around Cuba, and it was an unforgettable travel companion. Tom Miller brings it all alive—Fidel, the Revolution, the struggle with the U.S., the beauty and sadness of Havana, the charm of ordinary Cubans and the beautiful landscape of Cuba itself.
| Moon Handbooks: Cuba (2nd Edition) by Christopher P. Baker
This is the guidebook to take with you on any journey around Cuba. The author has not only done his homework, he’s put it all together in a very readable fashion. Would that all guidebooks were so approachable!
| In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
This is one of those books that defines a genre, or sub-genre-highly idiosyncratic travel writing. If you’ve never written about your own travels but want to, read and study this book.
| City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
If a book were a pill, and you could take a pill to understand India, this is the pill you should take. Dalrymple, like H.V. Morton and Jan Morris before him, weaves culture and history and his own experience together in a manner that makes other travel writers seem like simpletons.
| Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French by Richard Bernstein
This book is a great introduction to a complex country and people. But even if you’ve been to France a lot, you’ll be rewarded by the read.
| The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France by Ina Caro
Ina Caro not only brings the history of Gaul and then France into focus, she’s so good you actually remember it! A must-read for Francophiles of all ages and levels.
| French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France by Richard Goodman
This book is delightful from beginning to end: simple and sly, it conveys a love of France and the French.
|Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough
A wonderful and very readable history of the creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.
The Mountains of My Life (Modern Library Exploration) by Walter Bonatti
Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot
The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White.
Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Mystic Isles of the South Seas (The Bestsellers of 1921). by Frederick O’Brien
Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses
Re-reading because it’s so amazing: The Physics of Immortality : Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead by Frank J. Tipler
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone… by JK Rowling
A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson
The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon
About James’s Corner:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.