Books on the road



David Whitley looks into reading on the road, and tries to work out what sort of books enrich the experience.


I don’t regret many things (other than excessive alcohol intake the next morning) but one thing frequently hits me when I’m on the road. I’ll go somewhere surprisingly interesting, and the same regret strikes. “I wish,” I’ll think, “that I’d read up on this a bit more before getting here.” Everybody wants something different from their holiday reading. Some people want entertainment – page-turning crime thrillers that can be ploughed through in airports or on long, otherwise boring flights. I’m partly in that camp – anything weighty and worthy on a plane tends to be really hard work.



Other people want breezy escapism that they can read on the beach. To me, that’s a bit of an escapism overdose – you’ve already escaped, surely? One sort of book is almost a good investment however – one that is about the place you’re travelling through. These books come in many categories, of which novels are just one. Something set in the place you’re travelling through will often make that place more vivid, and you’ll frequently get a better understanding of what makes that place tick. The best examples of this I can think of are Dirt Music and Breath by Tim Winton. They are tremendous feats of writing, bringing the often empty stretches of Western Australia to life in a way that neutral description could never do. Don Quixote does this for La Mancha, the Bronte sisters do it for the Yorkshire ’s moorland.


Biographies are also great. Sometimes you’ll encounter a historical character on your travels that you just want to know more about. After visiting Hearst Castle in California , I sat thoroughly absorbed in a biography of William Randolph Hearst for a week as we travelled down the coast. Reading about Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Al Capone in Chicago will also enrich the visit.


Histories are another excellent choice, providing you get one that’s written with a bit of panache. I’ve travelled through Australia , South Africa and New Zealand reading engaging histories of the relevant country – they’re invaluable in getting an understanding of the people and the country’s past. Things start connecting together and making more sense.


The genre that’s most hit and miss – for me, anyway – tends to be the travelogue. These can often fall into the trap of being about the writer, not the place. The whole “wahey, I’m doing something wacky where foreigners live” schtick gets seriously tiring. A would-be comedian’s take on a country as a whole rarely offers that much real insight.


As a yardstick, it’s often best to go for something that isn’t trying to sum the whole country up – it’s focusing on something specific. For example, The Dog Fence by James Woodforf follows the giant fence that crosses the Australian outback in a bid to keep dingoes out of the grazing lands in the south. It’s a specific route, and focuses on the people along it, but it captures the country it passes through too.


The DIG Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd is a tremendous example of this too. It’s arguably the best book I’ve ever read, and it follows the trail of Victorian explorers Burke and Wills in their bid to be the first to cross the Australian continent from north to south. I defy anyone to read it and not want to take on the route as well.


The common theme of these books remains though – I really wish I’d read them before I went.


What sort of thing do you like to read on holiday? And what books would you recommend to travellers that give a great sense of a particular place? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.