Five Books for Armchair Traveling in the Time of COVID

As much of the world remains off-limits to traveling for Americans, those of us who suffer from acute wanderlust require a salve for our travel aches. Luckily, travel writers have already gifted us thousands of short stories, travelogues, and adventure books to slake our thirst for exploring the beyond. If you find yourself in need of some good armchair travel, consider some of these books:

The Best American Travel Writing

If you’ve never dabbled in reading travel writing, it might be an idea to pick a copy of The Best American Travel Writing which combines 20 or so of the year’s best travel stories and travelogues into one anthology. That way, you don’t have to feel beholden to any one story–read each one like you would a chapter book. Any year is fine, really, but I enjoy the 2014 version edited by Paul Theroux. There are some big names throughout the assortment including David Sedaris and Gary Shteyngart. A great introduction to travel writing!

The Travels of Mark Twain, Edited by Charles Neider

Though more famous for his fiction, Mark Twain also did a fair amount of travel writing–he crossed the Atlantic 27 times, for goodness sakes. This book pulls from arguably his most famous travelogue The Innocents Abroad as well as pieces from other works. His stories cover five continents, all with witty observations, including his famous “travel is fatal” comment that inspired the name of this blog.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Perhaps what we need most is a travel story that we as Americans could conceivably experience. One of the most popular travel writers, Bill Bryson is known for his grumpy observations mixed with interesting historical asides that color his current adventures. One thing is certain with a Bryson book: you will laugh and you will learn something. A Walk in the Woods is his most well known, chronicling his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his hilariously unprepared friend Katz. The book inspired a so-so film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte but with an appropriately outdoorsy soundtrack from Lord Huron. I’ve enjoyed A Walk in the Woods a few times, and it’s the most relevant to Americans right now, but if I had to pick a favorite I would go with In A Sunburned Country, in which Bryson tackles Australia.

Gui Ren: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People by Erin O’Neil

“Although this book is about travel, it is not a travel book.” Rather than focusing on the in’s and out’s of her travel experience, newcomer Erin O’Neil focuses on the people that bring her from A to B in her adventure traveling through Asia. Through personal struggles and career obstacles, Erin finds solace, advice, and friendship from the acquaintances with whom she strikes up conversations. Some end up strong friends. Some are fleeting encounters. All pull Erin to the next adventure. Those who have already spent ample time abroad will be familiar with the unexplained openness that comes with travel, the willingness to share your life with complete strangers. Gui Ren encompasses that mentality, and how you can apply it at home.

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Another travel master like Bryson, Rick Steves is best known for his “Travels in Europe” show on PBS. As such, Steves encompasses what many people associate with travel writing: itineraries, travel advice, restaurant recommendations etc. His focus on Europe is a veiled attempt to convince sheepish Americans to dip their toe in similar Western societies before catching the travel bug and venturing out further. In Travel as a Political Act, Steves makes the case that there is much to learn from travel. His stories take us around the world, illustrating the preconceived notions that he arrived with and the rearranged priorities he left with. The more we interact with the world outside of the United States, the more we’re willing to listen to people who have a different point of view.

BONUS: The Waygook Book: A Foreigner’s Guide to South Korea

The Waygook Book: A Foreigner's Guide to South Korea

Here’s a shameless plug, I know. My debut book The Waygook Book: A Foreigner’s Guide to South Korea chronicles the two years my wife and I spent teaching English in South Korea. Equal parts travelogue and memoir, the book features plenty of stories about my experience as a teacher, our fun traveling throughout the country and region (including chapters on Japan and New Zealand) and some helpful advice for anybody who might live in South Korea. If you’re reevaluating your career choices in light of COVID and think you may want to teach English overseas (they’re still hiring!), then this book is a good resource. The Waygook Book is available in both print and e-book.

What’s your favorite travel book?