7 Books That Remind Us of Where—And Who—We Were

When you crack open a list of great travel reads in an esteemed publication like this one, you usually have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get: books that uncannily bring to life a place or an experience. There’s a very good chance you’ll get a smattering of MFK Fisher, Paul Theroux, and Bruce Chatwin; some iconic American travelogues (On the Road, Travels With Charley, Blue Highways); perhaps the odd title by Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway. Maybe there’ll be a dutiful inclusion of A Passage to India. You’re virtually assured of getting a very good list. But this is not that kind of list.

The other way to think about what constitutes a great travel read is a book that you devoured while on a trip, which you’ll forever associate with that journey. That’s what we want to celebrate here. For me, the experience of reading can be so completely bound up in the place where the reading happened.

Maybe that’s a beach. I read all of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden on Stinson Beach north of San Francisco one hot August day, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, accompanied by cheap margaritas, in Tulum. Or it could be a hotel room: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad will always be the book I read when I couldn’t sleep my first night in Bilbao, the Guggenheim’s ghostly mass visible through my window. Or, of course, a plane or an airport, especially when there’s some kind of delay: I tore through Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, an incredible invocation of an imaginary place, while flying back and forth between the Ecuadorian mainland and the Galápagos because of bad weather on the islands; recently, stuck for a endless afternoon in a drab corner of Amsterdam Airport Schilphol because of a missed connection, I journeyed to the fraught mountain in Idaho where Tara Westover spent the childhood she describes so grippingly in her extraordinary memoir Educated.

After that, I found myself wanting to know what books other editors of Condé Nast Traveler loved reading while they were somewhere else, and how those reads made them feel. I think you’ll enjoy what they shared as much as I did.

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The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, on a one-way flight from New Zealand

I read Keri Hulme’s inimitable The Bone People the only time I ever left New Zealand on a one-way ticket and it was medicinal. I was 19, the move was by choice, and even still, I was a total wreck. For the entire journey (and honestly, so long afterward…), I grieved that country and my life there pretty deeply. And so I spent 14 hours, most of them overnight, sitting alone in a United cabin, under the vague yellow of an overhead light, as strangers around me slept, transfixed by this brilliant novel, set on the South Island’s West Coast. The story itself—of three complicated, isolated individuals whose lives intertwine—is dark, mesmerizing, and beautiful; Hulme’s words and storytelling were powerful distracters from whatever I was feeling. (Go read this book! It is excellent! It won the Booker Prize!) But it comforted me, too, to read about the country I’d departed, to follow these fictional people instead of fixate on the real ones I already missed, to feel a fresh connection to a place I was leaving behind. In a way I think of that book as a type of bridge between two huge chapters in my life, created entirely in that quiet, anonymous cabin. Which, appropriately, a plane ride can be too. —Erin Florio, executive editor

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquez, in Latin America

I have never lived and traveled with a book like I did with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez. It became an appendage of mine because, honestly, it took me so long to push through (I won’t deny there were many side reads along the way). But I will never forget the day when, sitting on the New York City subway, I read the very last line. I closed it and stared blankly across the rocking train. I had followed the Buendía family through generations, and they had followed me through two years (I’m not lying!) of my life. I had lain in a hammock in an Antigua, Guatemala, hacienda, sheltered from an afternoon rainstorm while first reading about the fictional town of Macondo. I had cracked it open to find the town changing urgently while I lounged on an island off Cartagena (my hotel back in the city was just a few steps from one of the author’s). I optimistically toted it to São Paulo, where I read maybe one page over a weekend of inhaling pasteis and choppes with an old friend, only to forget it in her apartment at the end of the trip—I risked missing my flight and ran back to save the paperback, whose cover was now halfway detached (did I mention this book belonged to a friend?). It was an epic journey, to say the least, and while I will never read it again, I’m glad we spent two years traveling together. —Megan Spurrell, senior editor

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1984, by George Orwell, on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands

I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time during a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands. We had chartered this amazing catamaran, and I spent hours reading on the ship’s trampoline as we navigated between crystal blue shorelines and coral reefs. I remember finally getting to the heartbreaking ending of the book on the last night of the trip and spending at least an hour afterward looking up at the stars in existential grief for Winston and a society in which the act of keeping diaries and thinking rebellious thoughts is criminalized. I still think about this book and this trip often—it’s one of just a few travel experiences where the book and destination are very much entwined in my memories. I think that’s probably because, to me, sailing represents the epitome of freedom and independence, far away from Big Brother’s watchful gaze. Set against the utter lack of freedom in 1984, I felt immensely grateful for the gift of travel, and also more attuned to how things we take for granted (like language, friendship, and books) all contribute to this autonomy in their own ways. —Hannah Towey, associate editor

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Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Fresh out of college, between jobs, and just a tad overwhelmed, I received a compelling invitation to a private villa in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to be shared with a friend’s mother and her friends. The stars had just aligned. With my dear friend living in Abu Dhabi and unable to join, there was an extra room in the villa, and she had me in mind. I was so in—how could I not be?


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