5 BOOKS THAT INSPIRED ME TO TRAVEL AND LIVE ABROAD
5. Malcolm Lowry, UNDER THE VOLCANO (1947)
In On the Road, Dean and Sal head down Mexico way to get their kicks- and experience little else in the process. For contrast, in the less-manic Under the Volcano, alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin stammers through his accepted hometown as his beloved urban purgatory- the somewhat mythical Quauhnahuac, Mexico (based on Cuernavaca, where Lowry spent much of his own life).
Under the Volcano is not a book concerned with travel, but is instead features a fascinating examination of place; particularly how it can mirror our own personal standing in life, or vice versa. Lowry paints a vivid picture of the small city, with its dirty cantinas, disappearing (and reappearing) volcano, overgrown gardens, and luminous circus spinning eerily in the night. Anyone who has traveled through Latin America will feel these places vividly on each page.
“How, without a drink inside you, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman playing dominoes with a chicken?”
The semi-autobiographical novel was written in the early 1940s, outside of Vancouver. Years later, Lowry’s widow would reminisce about the giant neon ‘SHELL’ sign aglow on an oil refinery across the Fraser River from their little cabin. As Lowry progressed with writing Volcano, the ‘S’ burnt out, leaving the couple to stare, for years on end, at a giant-blinking-red “HELL”. Read this book and experience that place for yourself.
4. Thomas Wolfe, YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN (1940)
Recently having published a well-received novel that exposed intimacies in the lives of those he grew up with, the underconfident George Webber travels from his new home in New York City back to his hometown in North Carolina. Upon going home, he receives the wrath of those he has offended with his novel.
This rejection shudders his footing and sends him on a tailspin of travel and introspection. He explores New York’s artistic social circles, expat life in Paris and a vulnerable Berlin, under the fixation of a new leader named Hitler. He returns to the United States with maturity and reliance. Another semi-autobiographical novel, Wolfe’s remarkable energy and character vignettes pierce the historical clichés that we have attached to the 1920s and 1930s. He gives exceptional humanity, compassion and understanding to those that he intersects with on his own journey, whist pondering the journeys of others. This is for the pensive, patient traveler.
3. Robin L. Graham, DOVE (1972)
This is Robin’s autobiographical tale of leaving Southern California (with two kittens) at the age of 16 to sail around the world in a 24-foot sloop. On the journey he visits exotic ports of call and falls in love. He would return to Los Angeles five years later with a wife and child.
My father gave me an old, smelly copy of this when I was 12. While I never did sail around the world, I was able to make it to Philadelphia by the age of 16. I even drove some of the way.
2. William Least Heat-Moon, BLUE HIGHWAYS (1982)
“A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go.”
And so, after losing his wife and his job, William Least Heat-Moon follows the American tradition of packing up and heading into the frontier. His destination: the forgotten towns located on the backroads (the blue highways on maps) of the USA.
A staple in high school textbooks and travel bookstores everywhere, Blue Highways has stood the test of time with good reason. The book retains its appeal to modern-day bearded hipsters who duck suburban trends and long for the coke machine, Burma shave iconography of pre-suburban America. You’ll find that nostalgia here; ahead of its time, paradoxically.
Like Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, Moon captures those he meets along his journey with stunning insight and compassion. Kerouac’s backroad explorations seem uncaring and flippant in comparison to this stuff.
1. THE WORLD ALMANAC AND BOOK OF FACTS
I grew up in a small town with few interesting facts. Not nearly enough to fill an almanac. Thankfully, each year my parents would buy me the new edition of “The World”, as I called it.
It was an almanac. It was filled with facts.
No poetry, no metaphors, no parting of the Red Sea; just endlessly fascinating and well-organized information. And, like Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump, I devoured that book, pining for the day in which I would have to list off the fourth-tallest building in Dallas (the Chase Tower, since 1987).
Eventually, this book propelled my interest in cities and foreign countries (I’m still a proud expert at the populations of places). I would later connect some dots and learn a bit more about the culture of these places without the help of The World. But in the 1980s, before I knew anything about Mobutu, I was content with knowing Zaire’s population density (about 20 km/sq). Always smelled great, too.