One of the best ways to fight anxiety is with facts. Wait, let me put that in a more fun way – my favorite thing to do when it’s totally reasonable to have anxiety, but there’s hardly anything I can do to actively fix the problem/pandemic, is distract myself.
I spend a lot of time reading nonfiction, which I think is especially appealing right now, maybe because I don’t really want to read things that introduce even more uncertainty into life.
What I want to read right now is something that’s true about the world – and not just true this week. Something told in a beautiful way that reminds me that, yes, the world always seems to be falling apart, but we’ll probably get through it anyway, because we made it through all these dramatic events in history.
So below are 12 of my favorite books that have made me feel like I’m traveling widely, even when I’m in coronavirus isolation and haven’t left the house for days (but also when life is normal, and I’m just not traveling).
A Note About Affiliates: Amazon & Bookshop
The first links for each book go to Amazon; the second ones go to Bookshop, which is a new site launched in January. It lets you buy books online through a simple, clean interface, while supporting independent bookstores – which I think is great. This explains in much more detail how it works. Right now, they only ship to the US.
I’ve linked to IndieBound as an Amazon alternative in previous posts, but I find Bookshop much smoother to use. Plus, Bookshop is now doing all the fulfillment – meaning handling payments and shipping – for IndieBound.
Without further ado, my favorite books to get you out of the house, by destination:
- The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, by Tahir Shah. Okay, this book is hilarious and heartfelt and just so enjoyable. Plus, it perfectly captures the disorienting experience of being an expat and trying to figure out how a new place works. (And I’ve been in that situation in a lot of new places.) I heard Shah speak at the very end of a very long conference. As he was being introduced, I was basically falling asleep in my chair. But as soon as he started speaking I found myself leaning forward, hanging on every word he said with a grin on my face. Obviously, I bought his book, and reading it feels the same way. (On Bookshop here.)
Honduras (& Pre-Columbian Central America)
- The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston. This book is 50% jungle adventure, 50% fascinating non-fiction that makes you learn things – about archaeology, history, tropical diseases, scary snakes and indigenous mythology before Columbus showed up. It’s both smart and entertaining. Plus it has a suddenly-relevant ending that talks about wild diseases I’d never heard of, and some history of pandemics. (On Bookshop here.)
- Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, by Jean Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. This is the ideal book to read if you’re moving to France and want to understand the national psyche (or maybe if you’re dating a French person). A friend of mine from Paris gave me this when I was moving from Italy to France and I must say, it took the edge off the culture shock. So many things happened in my French life that just made me think, “yep, just like the book said.” From the differences among the country’s diverse regions, to food, cultural and political history, it’s way better than a Lonely Planet guide to understand France. It’s also very readable and fun – not too academic feeling. (On Bookshop here.)
- Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter Hessler. This did a similar thing for me when I moved to China as Sixty Million Frenchmen did when I moved to France. (Although it’s a little more academic feeling.) It’s a really wide-ranging overview of Chinese history, and what in the culture and politics makes it the way it is today, from a journalist who lived there for years. (On Bookshop here.)
- Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen. This is a fun, inside look at New Orleans’ culture and cuisine – including its Italian, French, African and Native American influences. It also gives a window into the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but without feeling like it’s about that. The hurricane just happens to be part of the city’s recent history, and Roahen fits it in naturally. (On Bookshop here.)
- 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. The lone novel on this list! I’m really not a sci-fi or fantasy person, but I’m recommending this because it feels like a travel story on this planet. Murakami gives an excellent portrait of real Japanese culture. And because he is Japanese (not a foreigner trying to over-emphasize the Japanese-ness of everything) you see characters in Tokyo going out for ramen and sushi, but also for French food and listening to European music (as you would expect in a modern city). I will warn you, it’s long. The first 500 pages were total page-turners (which I read on a beach in Thailand… ahh, such was life before the virus). Then it got a little slower for a while, but overall the story is memorable and entertaining. (On Bookshop here.)
- Heat, by Bill Buford. The story of an American magazine editor who gets a job in an Italian-American restaurant kitchen, and eventually moves to Italy to learn the secrets of Italian food. Because food is such an important part of Italian culture as a whole, this is a great window into both. And it’s hilarious. (On Bookshop here.)
- I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, by Rigoberta Menchú. This is a dose of reality. It’s a first-person of account of Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted 36 years and was funded by the US, which was trying to keep the country from becoming any good at socialism. Menchú is an indigenous woman who grew up in the conflict, and her writing paints a straightforward picture of what the country was like during this time. I read this in college, before doing a brief study abroad in Guatemala, and I recommend it to anyone who’s planning to travel there. (On Bookshop here.)
Travel Books About Multiple Places
- Abroad, by Paul Fussell. Definitely the most “literary” book on this list. Fussell wrote this in 1980, weaving together dozens of travel books and essays, mostly written between the two world wars. So you get a double historical perspective: Him looking at travel in the ’20s and ’30s, and us looking at a pre-internet perspective on “how much travel has changed.” One of my favorite parts is when he talks about British travelers writing fake information in their real passports – back when passports were new and considered a silly form of government overreach. It’s quaint, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be. (On Bookshop here.)
My favorite book on this list for New Orleans and Italy are also about food – but they’re rooted in one place. The two below are more like world food tours.
- A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage. I loved this book. It’s a world history refresher class, but instead of history being told through wars and invasions, it’s told through beverages! How cool is that? You learn how beer, wine, distilled liquor, coffee, tea and CocaCola were invented, and how those inventions changed people’s lives and affected the course of history. It’s fascinating and really memorable. (On Bookshop here.)
- Cooked, by Michael Pollan. I just can’t make a list of book recommendations without including at least one by Michael Pollan. This is a global tour of food that explains the science, history and culture behind why we eat what we eat (in many different cultures), and makes your mouth water for foods you’re reading about for the first time. There’s a series on Netflix based on this book, but I found the book itself far more entertaining. (On Bookshop here.)
I have a few more food-related book suggestions at the end of my post about the way Italians eat, and how it keeps them so much thinner (on average) than Americans.
You can also download and listen to any of these (or any book, for that matter) with Amazon’s Audible, which is free for 30 days. (And if you cancel it, you can keep whatever you downloaded during the 30-day trial.)
Bookshop also sells some audiobooks, as well as books on physical CDs.
If you really need a different kind of distraction, besides reading, maybe this will hit the mark.