Editor of The Faber Book of Exploration
I’m rereading William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese, a glorious quest by the author, who had been confined by poor health, in search of the strangely enigmatic birds. “I wanted to spread my wings,” he writes, and so begins his flight from his sick bed. Slowly, his journey with the migrating flocks brings him back to life. I’m also enjoying Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe by Nicholas Jubber. He takes us on a fascinating excursion through the epic poems that have knitted together European history, from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas to the Odyssey, and it’s compelling stuff.
Author of Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth
Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout is probably my favourite book; it’s certainly the one I’ve recommended and reread most often. Funny! Surreal! Existential! Catastrophic! Sad! At one point a librarian gets her ears shot off. The novel takes place in deserts, wastepaper baskets, the dreams of sleeping Japanese women and the apartment of a singularly humourless, moping, heartbroken writer. Every time I read it, I laugh and discover something new. In 2020, the strand of the story that focuses on the failure of government to deal with an escalating apocalypse feels prescient.
Author of Tangier: From the Romans to the Rolling Stones
I found Jonathan Raban’s book Passage to Juneau profoundly comforting. He sails north along the Pacific seaboard from his home in Seattle, and along the way we learn how Kwakiutl and Tsimshian indigenous peoples navigated canoes through a foggy Inside Passage using echoes of their voices rebounding off the rocks and skerries. But it is also an internal voyage in which Raban deals with the death of his father. It is staggeringly beautiful.
Author of The Lost Pianos of Siberia
I’ll devour anything Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ever wrote on the desert. His writing takes you to places in the Sahara no one will ever go, even when we aren’t in a lockdown. He was a pilot who knew how freedom felt, his descriptions of flying are the closest my imagination will ever get to soaring like a bird. That feels good at a time when I can’t leave the house. His desert classic Wind, Sand and Stars speaks perfectly to these times and how we’re going to have to all pull together. “Once we are bound to our brothers by a common goal that is outside us, then we can breathe. Experience teaches us that to love is not to gaze at one another but to gaze together in the same direction. There is no comradeship except through unity on the same rope, climbing towards the same peak.”
Author of The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places
The best travel writing offers not escape but connection. That’s why it remains vital. What does it mean to be a stranger? What are the obligations of guest and host? Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland (1981) is an absorbing bildungsroman about the Togolese author’s stay on the Arctic island of Upernavik. More recently, Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake and its predecessor, Border, are lovingly crafted and meticulous tracings of the historic fault lines scarring southern Europe.
Author of Around the World in 80 Trains
The parameters of travel writing have shifted, with traditional narratives now making way for stories from defectors and refugees for whom travel is not a whim but a matter of survival. Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains was written by text message from an Australian detention centre on Manus Island, a brutal but beautiful piece of literature that reminds us during this time of isolation that there is always someone whose plight is worse than ours.
Stories about Africa have always captured my imagination. The first travel book I ever read was Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari and it remains my favourite. Describing his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town, Theroux transported me to places I’d never heard of. Here were new landscapes, wild animals and remarkable people – some filled with hate, others with love, but all written with such humanity. I fell in love with Africa before I’d even visited it.
Author of Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe
As I travel around my room, trying to catch sight of the far horizon beyond the bedroom window, two irrepressible travellers help me to celebrate a borderless world and the forces and urges that are greater than any single one of us. First is Jay Griffiths’ untameable Wild: An Elemental Journey, an exhilarating journey that pleads for the preservation of wilderness. Second is Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World. Bouvier – the Jack Kerouac of Switzerland – inspired a generation of young 1960s Europeans on to the road, taking me with them. He revelled in the way a journey – and a traveller’s tale – can change our lives. “You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.”
Author of Kings of the Yukon
John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country drew me to Alaska, drew me back to Alaska and made me want to write about it. McPhee’s career spans dozens of books, but this is perhaps his finest, an intimate, closely observed portrait of the ways a place can shape the mentality of a people. Whether canoeing the remote Brooks Range rivers or spending months in the bush town of Eagle, it is a seemingly effortless blend of reportage, travel, nature writing and politics. There’s no better writing I know on our frequently confused and conflicted relationship with the natural world.
Felicity Aston’s Alone in Antarctica is laden with emotion, vulnerability and humility. The way she describes the isolation, the cold and the landscape is vivid and immediate. It transcends the genre, too. Also, what she achieved was simply extraordinary – I mean 1,700km across Antarctica, alone! Her grit, her resilience, her honesty, her sheer ability to be alone with herself day after day after day inspired me no end. I plan to reread the book as a way of reminding myself that I can get through this. I know it will take me out of myself too, and I need some of that right now.
Tim Ecott’s latest book is The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year (Short Books, £14.99)