Technology is a two-handed affair. On the one hand, we have objectively wonderful innovations such as penicillin and 30-minute pizza delivery. On the other hand, we have some more problematic discoveries: nuclear fission that can illuminate entire cities or destroy them, automobiles that transport us at great speeds while polluting the air, smart phones that give us instant access to all of the information that's ever existed but also might turn our brains into mush.
Perhaps this helps explain the continued appeal of the humble book. In an era of constant technological stimulus, there's nothing quite like getting lost in a good story. To paraphrase one famous book, business trips are the best and the worst of times to read. When traveling for work, you're probably slammed with, well, work. But it's also possible that you'll find yourself at 30,000 feet with no WiFi and some time on your hands. So just in case, we've put together a short list of book recommendations. These novels all involve travel to some extent. Mostly though, they're just fun, and we like them.
The Funniest Travel Books - A Subjective and Incomplete List
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
Mark Twain casts an enormous shadow over all subsequent American authors and travel writers, which is just a pretentious way of saying that he’s very funny. Twain’s bestselling work in his own lifetime wasn’t “Huckleberry Finn” or “Tom Sawyer,” it was The Innocents Abroad, a humorous account of his travels through Europe and the Holy Land. Targets of his satire include fellow American tourists, ancient ruins of dubious significance, and the idiosyncrasies of the German language. Much of the comedy comes from the sense that Twain is never quite convinced that his Grand Tour is worth so much effort, and that he wouldn’t have been rather better off staying home on the banks of the Mississippi. But Twain’s crankiness is largely an act, and he reaches a conclusion familiar to many travelers, that “memories someday will become all beautiful when the last annoyance that encumbers them shall have faded out of our minds.”
In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
Australia, like modern plumbing, ripe tomatoes in January, or the human respiratory system, is something that we tend to take for granted without considering how remarkable it really is. Bill Bryson does a wonderful job of conveying his constant astonishment and affection for a place that is a country, a continent, and a world in and of itself. He finds the land Down Under to be a “prosperous, well ordered, and instinctively egalitarian” society where people cheerfully disregard the threat posed by “extravagantly toxic spiders,” and show a “perplexing affinity for cricket, a sport seemingly invented to make all other human endeavors look interesting and lively.” In a Sunburned Country is unfailingly interesting and lively on its own merits. If you find yourself on a twenty-hour flight to the other side of the world, be sure to pack this book in your carry-on.
Money, Martin Amis
The full title of Martin Amis’s novel is Money: A Suicide Note, though it might just as well have been called Business Travel: A Tragicomedy. The business traveler in question would be John Self, an English director of television commercials who’s come to New York to make his first feature film, but who mostly occupies himself in the gleeful pursuit of his own personal rock bottom. He’s a virtuoso of irresponsibility, a prodigious consumer of alcohol and junk food, and an unrepentantly vulgar anti-hero. In spite of, or perhaps because of all that, he’s also a wildly companionable narrator. Here he is, for instance, on the importance of physical fitness:
"I take all kinds of exercise ...I climb into cabs and restaurant booths. I hike to the pub. I cough a lot. I throw up pretty frequently which really takes it out of you. I sneeze, and hit the tub and the can. I get in and out of bed, often several times a day.”
In John Self, Martin Amis has created the literary equivalent of a disheveled stranger knocking back double whiskeys in the airport Chiles. He orders a round for the entire bar. Equal parts charming and repulsive, you’re not sure you like him. You’re not sure it matters, because as you sip your drink, you can’t deny that makes things more interesting.
The Dog of the South, Charles Portis
Charles Portis is the funniest writer you’ve never read. Best known, if known at all, as the author of True Grit, his 1968 Western that’s twice been adapted for the screen, Portis has developed a cult following for his bone-dry comic novels, several of which actually feature cults. His stories are mostly populated by con-men, conspiracy theorists, circus performers, bossy grandmothers, and other assorted oddballs. Travel is a recurring motif for Portis, who in real life has led a relatively stationary and reclusive existence in Arkansas for the past fifty years.
The Dog of the South follows an amateur Civil War buff named Ray Midge as he travels through Mexico to recover his Buick and shotgun, which have been stolen by his wife and her ex-husband. It’s the classic road trip story, as told by an author who’s been described as “like Cormac McCarthy, but funny.”
- Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
- Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
- The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
What will you be reading on your next trip? Let us know by tweeting to @Rocketrip.