Reading books on the road

Dahab, Egypt

There are a gazillion things to observe when on the road, and here’s one of my favorites: the books people read.

Anytime you see someone reading a book, they’re traveling. There is of course the geographic location in which they are actually reading. The English fellow above, for example, is sitting on the upper deck of the restaurant at the Penguin Village in Dahab, Sinai. Behind him is the Gulf of Aqaba, and were he to turn his head 90 degrees to the left, he’d be looking across the water at the barren mountains of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps at a cargo ship en route to or from Eilat, Israel or Aqaba, Jordan. Not a bad place to read.

But there is also the mental journey that a book takes people on. The English fellow in Dahab is reading about Paul Theroux traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town, and based on where the book is open to I’d guess he’s somewhere around Tanzania or Malawi. Any genre, not just a travel narrative, takes the reader on a journey of some sort. (I could say a lot about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov at this point, but I’ll resist the urge.)

Once at a cafe in Beijing, sipping coffee at the start of what would be a 14-month journey across Asia, I was reading Theroux’s Fresh Air Fiend and underlined many lines, including these:

Losing a friend to death or absence or misunderstanding is not only a blow to self-esteem but a stun to memory. The sad reflection that we are losing a part of ourselves is true: part of our memory has departed with the lost friend.

I was traveling in China, but with these lines I was traveling elsewhere to, considering the truth of the words — the ways in which relationships make us who we are and the dangers of neglecting or scuttling them, the risks of extended trips away from home, the multi-dimensional tragedy of a childhood friend’s recent suicide.

Books are a gift, a way of enriching and shaping our physical journeys. Any books or lines that have struck you? If so, please leave a note in the comment section.


Posted by | Comments (9)  | April 12, 2011
Category: Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

9 Responses to “Reading books on the road”

  1. Ted Beatie Says:

    I love reading travel books when I’m traveling. I read Lunatic Express in Haiti, and Tales from Nowhere while traveling through SE Asia.

  2. Gareth Says:

    I’m always fascinated by what people read when traveling. The most sighted book that I spotted (and read myself) during my travels in Southeast Asia was ‘Mr Nice’ autobiography by Howard Marks. The book is in bookshops absolutely everywhere throughout Southeast Asia.

  3. Alexis Grant Says:

    Great post. When I was traveling in Ghana, I found an old, worn copy of Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar — an original version, complete with the book’s first cover. I’d already bought the book, had a copy at home and wanted to bring it on my trip, but didn’t have room in my pack. I love not only watching which books other people read while traveling, but which books find me on the road.

  4. tripgirl6 Says:

    If I am alone then the books are the best bet, besides listening to some good music on i-pod or on the mobile phone. If it is family members, who are traveling with me then I love chatting, providing others are not getting disturbed.

  5. Thomas Says:

    Great article. I love reading books at the side of the sea. Now people are carrying their book-readers on bags.No need to pages.

  6. » Travel and book choice :: Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] Carillet addressed this a bit recently, with his “Reading books on the road” post. But it’s made me wonder: How much does your destination inspire what people choose as […]

  7. Travel and book choice | Travel Guide And Holiday Says:

    […] Carillet addressed this a bit recently, with his “Reading books on the road” post. But it’s made me wonder: How much does your destination inspire what people choose as […]

  8. Russ Mease Says:

    I have a list of travel/adventure books that have influenced me one way or another, on my blog at Since I am preparing for a 5-6 month Pacific Crest Trail hike this spring and summer of 2012, many of my favorite quotes are from the book; A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster. One of my favorites, though, is from Rolff Potts book, Vagabonding – “Walk-about acts as a kind of remedy when the duties and obligations of life cause one to lose track of his true self. What’s intriguing about walkabout is that there’s no physical goal: It simply continues until one becomes whole again.” I’m looking forward to my up-coming “walkabout’ on the PCT!
    -Russ Mease

  9. DEK Says:

    In a bin on a street in Mexico I found a book — actually only part of a book: the back half of it was gone — El Tesoro del Presidente del Paraguay, by E. Salgari. It was a cheap pulp but I bought it entirely for the cover, a wonderful illustration of hostile Indians — some on foot and some on horseback — attacking a falling passenger balloon. Two sailors have climbed into the rigging and are firing at the Indians while a blond chap — most likely the hero — is cutting loose the basket to gain altitude. The air is filled with flying arrows and spears and whirling bolos. These people obviously knew how to do travel.

    Since the back half of the book was missing, I didn’t think I ought to get involved with the story.