Road trips in August, a stop at a Circle K in the middle of nowhere, and those car games where someone falls asleep in the middle and you keep playing without them. Here, five travel memoirs that put Eat, Pray, Love to shame. Scenic highwayscapes and passenger’s-seat philosophy. These books aren’t really books; they’re big ships and fast cars and gummy bears in the backseat.
Once you purchase your ticket and set foot in a train station, you have given yourself up to Amtrak time, which has a delightfully eccentric relation to US time. The printed schedule that waits at your seat or sleeping compartment becomes a wormhole between the parallel worlds of America and Amtrak. […] To be a train passenger in America is to be in an altered state, the fifty-first and the only mobile state in the Union.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this book inspired Amtrak’s writing residency. Jenny Diski rides Amtrak around the circumference of America, from New York to Sacramento to New Orleans and back. She is a British writer, traveling to get away from things rather than to ~experience~ things. Before her train voyage, she travels from Germany to America on a cargo vessel. She is the only single woman on the ship, thinking and reading and staring at the ocean. Arriving on land, she boards Amtrak and plunges into solitude. This book feels like the best kind of travel — monotonous, lonely, calming, as big machines quietly moving you through empty spaces. The entire story is grayish blue. Meditation, with some wonderful insights into the Americans she meets during the journey.
2. The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
Iowa is in the middle of the biggest plain this side of Jupiter. Climb onto a rooftop almost anywhere in the state and you are confronted with a featureless sweep of corn as far as the eye can see. It is a thousand miles from the sea in any direction, four hundred miles from the nearest mountain, three hundred miles from skyscrapers and muggers and things of interest…
To reach anywhere of even passing interest from Des Moines by car requires a journey that in other countries would be considered epic. It means days and days of unrelenting tedium, in a baking steel capsule on a ribbon of highway.
There goes Bill Bryson, driving down a dirt road in the middle of NoWhereNoTime, Iowa. He is naked, with a notebook and a pen. He disappears into a heat blaze, turns right, drives to Missouri, and eventually ends up back where he started. It’s Middle America in the eighties, when “farmer’s tan” was just becoming a thing. Classic roady times, twenty-first-century style. Yes, he is a White Educated Man traveling in middle America and, occasionally, poking irreverent fun at people who say “purty.” But this was before political correctness really happened. I was giggling like a can of corn through the whole thing.
3. AA Gill is Away by AA Gill
You either get the point of Africa or you don’t. What draws me back year after year is that it’s like seeing the world with the lid off. You can see the works, the intricate engineering, that fantastically complex and beautiful series of cogs and wheels and springs and checks and balances that makes the globe work.
Alright, this one’s the whole world. A. A. Gill is a food and television critic with the Sunday Times in London, and these short pieces were written while he was, as the title says, away. Away in Timbuktu and Patagonia and the neon kidney-shaped pools of Malibu. A. A. immortalizes each spot in a ten to fifteen page bit — an “interview with a place,” he calls it: “to treat a place as if it were a person, to go and listen to it, ask it questions, observe it the way you would interview a politician or a pop star.” A snackable book, one you carry with you all summer, reading and rereading, wiping crumbs and sand from paragraphs about baobabs and gazelles.
4. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
The absence of the whole rhetoric and cult of sports and exercise is the single greatest difference between daily life in France and daily life in America. It’s true that French women’s magazines are as deeply preoccupied with body image and appearance as American ones. But they are confident that all problems can be solved by lotions.
No shame in romanticizing Paris a little bit. Come on. A narrow rue, a yeasty loaf, a trench coat. Here, you’ll find short personal essays from Gopnik’s time living in Paris in the late nineties. Hairline insights into the delicate differences between France and America — all the tiny, delightful details you’d never learn elsewhere (like the fact that French journalists do not use fact-checkers, at least not in the same way American ones do). You’ll also find comic bits about raising an American toddler abroad (Gopnik and his wife raised their New York City-born son in Paris until he was five). A self-proclaimed “comic-sentimental” essayist, Gopnik’s Paris is awkward and magical and delicious. The perfect book for anyone who wants to feel les feels françaises. I was Googling Parisian Airbnbs by page thirty.
5. Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear
On those long train rides around Europe, I had plenty of time to ponder, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I’d taken my vision for granted over the past nineteen years. I’d wasted a ton of precious time looking at the same faces, the same street signs, the same insides of the same rooms. Everything would change now that I had to cram a lifetime of sights into the next decade or so. I needed to accumulate images.
What does it feel like to know you will lose your ability to see, probably sometime before you turn 35? That the cells in your eyes are slowly dying, like lights flickering off in a switchboard? At nineteen, during one of those routine ophthalmologist visits where they pry your eyes open with dilating drops, Nicole learns she will go blind in the next ten to fifteen years. A degenerative retinal disease. The travel comes later, when she uses her last ten years of sight to see Venice and Budapest. Venice from the perspective of the soon-to-be blind, little curls of light vibrating in the canals. She also desperately wants to have children while she can still see them. This book isn’t *quite* as travel-oriented as the rest on this list, but there’s wanderlust here, in less seeable ways.