Summer is the season of travel and adventure. The kids are out of school, adults have vacation time to use and the great wide world is calling. Would-be adventurers imagine exotic trips with fascinating companions, but in reality the joy of travel is usually tempered by a host of unpleasant logistics. This is why the best travel experiences are often those found in books about other peoples.
For hardy souls who believe the only true adventure includes a physical challenge, start with “Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark From a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean,” by Morten Strøksnes. Norwegian journalist Strøksnes makes a pact with a friend to try to catch the elusive Greenland shark, a creature that can grow to 24 feet long and may live to be 500 years old. Their quest brings a myriad of challenges, including procuring a rotting bull corpse for bait and rigging a rubber boat for an oversize catch — all while they ponder life and death and the nature of myth.
Travel writing takes a macabre twist in “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” by Caitlin Doughty. A mortician troubled by the impersonal management of death in America, Doughty searches the world to find a better way to handle the final good-bye. With healthy doses of dark humor, Doughty visits Indonesian cultures who keep their mummified loved ones at home for years after death, Mexicans who celebrate with their dead on the Day of the Dead and Japanese who mindfully tend to the remains of their cremated relatives. For Doughty, these more personal approaches give healthier perspectives not only on death, but life as well.
In “The Geography of Genius,” NPR correspondent Eric Weiner takes an egghead’s expedition into the geographic origins of creativity. Weiner travels to Greece to discover what inspired the classical philosophers, to China to explore the culture that gave us everything from the mechanical clock to the first paper money and to Vienna to enjoy some of the greatest music and art the world has ever known. At stops all over the globe, Weiner points out that creative genius doesn’t happen by accident, but is actively nourished by the place where it arises.
Rick Steves, of television fame, has made world travel not only his business, but his raison d’être. In “Travel as a Political Act,” Steves walks among people subsisting in the hot, gang-filled slums of El Salvador, bikes through a thriving hippie commune in Denmark and befriends curious Muslim locals in Turkey and Iran. No matter the political climate, Steves goes with an open mind, viewing travel as a humanizing act, vital to breaking down political barriers.
The politics of the Cold War abruptly distanced America from nearby Cuba many years ago. Mark Kurlansky’s “Havana: A Subtropical Delirium,” explores the lively island that has recently re-opened its doors to Americans. This is a fascinating history of Cuba’s capital city, from pirates to Communists, with surprising insight into a people whose sensibilities, shaped by decades of isolation and strife, have given rise to a uniquely vibrant and resilient culture.
Finally, for the eclectic armchair traveler, try “Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” by Joshua Foer. From the cofounders of a popular destination website, this compendium of the obscure includes such attractions as a festival in Spain where men leap over wriggling infants to ward off evil, a South African baobob tree so large it has a pub inside that seats 15 and a Boston museum that houses an autobiography bound in the skin of its author.
The desire to experience the new, to wonder at the unusual, is a universal trait of humans of any age, and often the most inspiring journeys can be found no farther away than the pages of a book at your fingertips.