Books For The Summer Travel Itch


Now that it’s summertime, one in three people who shop at my bookstore are looking for travel guides, phrase books, travelogues or history books about some enticing destination.

Yesterday a woman bought a Russian phrase book.  I told her that I heard a Starbucks cappuccino costs fifteen U.S. dollars if you buy it in Red Square.

She said that she was just going to St. Petersburg where certainly coffee must be cheaper.

Another guy was planning on going to Greenland but acted almost too casual about this decision. I think he thought I was doubting his resolve which, honestly I was.

I did recommend a book about a father and son’s harried boat trip to the tip of Greenland, N by E by Moby Dick illustrator Rockwell Kent.

Many people buy the Costa Rica travel guide, especially families.  Someone else recommended Portugal with wringing hands — but then said, apropos of caffeine’s effect on the brain, that the worst, most barbaric traffic in the world exists in Cairo. If you live through a taxi ride in Cairo, you can survive anything.

I asked her if you could sail from Portugal to Morocco.  She didn’t know but said good luck finding out. I still haven’t found out — but will. You see, I have a fantasy that some day soon I might have enough money to travel again.

Which is really pretty funny considering the egregiously low amount of money I manage to live on.

Why is travel important? I’m not sure it is but for me, it might remind me that I’m still youthful, optimistic and capable of flagrant, fearless and beautiful gestures.  If this sounds precious, consider the people you know, even yourself, who are daily beset by crushing moments of powerlessness, fear and self-doubt. Certainly, taking some action to alleviate these traumas is good for all involved.

Lately I’ve been feeling the illusion of getting old which, in San Francisco, is even more illusory.  But beyond that I’m questioning whether humanity — in light of the headlines — was a good idea in the first place.  It must be time for a trip.

In an effort to inspire myself, I’m picking out travel books to read.

I don’t really like your straightforward travel book in which a seemingly bad-ass yet self-deprecating man or woman goes to some dangerous or far-flung third world place and survives snakes, car wrecks and diseases all while introducing the native population to American dance moves.

So I’ve picked out a few gems that I think won’t disappoint. In fact, it was the customers at my very store who introduced me to these books (none of which I’ve read yet.)  It’s no surprise that a couple of them have been republished by New York Review Book Classics.

The Way Of The World by Nicolas Bouvier: “In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had a rattletrap Fiat and a little money, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way.”

A Time Of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: “At the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey—to walk to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the rich account of his adventures as far as Hungary, after which Between the Woods and the Water continues the story to the Iron Gates that divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Acclaimed for its sweep and intelligence, Leigh Fermor’s book explores a remarkable moment in time.”

No Hurry To Get Home by Emily Hahn: “Born in St. Louis in 1905, she crashed the all-male precincts of the University of Wisconsin geology department as an undergraduate, traveled alone to the Belgian Congo at age 25, was the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, bore the child of the head of the British Secret Service before World War II, and finally returned to New York to live and write in Greenwich Village.”

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah:  “Inspired by the Moroccan vacations of his childhood, Tahir Shah dreamed of making a home in that astonishing country. At age thirty-six he got his chance. Investing what money he and his wife, Rachana, had, Tahir packed up his growing family and bought Dar Khalifa, a crumbling ruin of a mansion by the sea in Casablanca that once belonged to the citys caliph, or spiritual leader.”

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →