Reading was my first great love in life. Long before I boarded my first plane, I was enthralled by the idea of faraway places. I spent my childhood in quiet corners between the pages of a good book - much to the disappointment of my younger sister, who was always begging me to play tag or catch. Didn’t she know what adventures I was having?
As I grew older, I realised that adventures didn’t just belong in books - I could actually go out and see the world with my own two eyes. But I’ll always credit books with imbuing me with a sense of insatiable curiosity. Whenever I find myself in a travel drought - between overseas trips - I know I can always go on an ‘adventure of the mind’ by picking up a book.
While you won’t find all of the following six books in the travel section, they all inspired me to go on adventures. A mix of fiction and nonfiction, each of these books are close to my heart because they showed me new worlds and different ways of living. I’ll always cherish them for the role they played in shaping my wanderlust.
1) The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
You may be wondering, ‘what does a book about Tudor England have to do with travel?’, but bear with me - it’ll make sense in a moment!
I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl when I was in my early teens. I was staying at my Dad’s and had run out of books to read (the horror!), so my step-mum told me to pick one from her collection. And thus marked my swift transition from young adult literature (Sweet Valley High anyone?) to proper adult fiction.
I was hooked. I went from reading about high school dramas to reading about the politics of the Tudor Court - I could feel my brain expanding as I tried to imagine what life would have been like for people back then, hundreds of years ago. I loved reading about palaces, the River Thames, and the Tower of London - and I knew I couldn’t wait to visit England and see these historical landmarks for myself.
Fast-forward five-or-so years and I was flying over London (at age 19). It was a beautiful clear day, so we had an amazing view of the River Thames below. I will never forget how it felt to see the city for the first time - so steeped in history. I spent 10 days exploring churches and palaces and of course, the Tower of London, where I visited Anne Boleyn’s crypt. It still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it, and I’m not sure the trip would have been the same if I hadn’t been so interested in England’s history. I still love historical fiction to this day, and have visited the Tower of London several times since.
2) Shantaram by Gregory Roberts
Unlike The Other Boleyn Girl, you will find Shantaram on most travel book lists - it’s one of the most epic adventure books I have ever read.
Based on a true story (although just how true is up to you to decide), Shantaram follows the life of Lin, an escaped convict who fled a maximum security prison in Australia and tried to disappear in the streets of Bombay. He spends time in a slum, becomes involved with the local mafia, falls in love - and that’s just the beginning. This book is huge (seriously, it weighs a tonne), and will leave your mouth hanging open in disbelief. You’ll wonder ‘is this true?’, ‘did that actually happen?’, all while being mesmerised by the author’s descriptions of Bombay.
Up until this point I’d read very little about India. Shantaram opened up a new world for me and I can’t wait to one day visit this fascinating place.
3) Little Princes by Conor Grennan
Every now and then you read a book that doesn’t just inspire you - it changes something in your heart. You start the book with a set of opinions and philosophies, and you finish the book with your heart in splinters, your eyes puffy from crying, and your soul filled with hope. Little Princes was one of those books for me.
Author Conor Grennan had every intention of travelling around the world to celebrate turning 30 - little did he know that his life would abruptly change. He spent the first three months of his year-long trip volunteering in Nepal. He thought he would get some charitable work ‘out of the way’ before the real fun began. Only, he quickly discovered that the orphans he was looking after in Nepal weren’t actually orphans; they were victims of child trafficking. Their parents were still alive.
Shocked to the core, Conor took it upon himself to reunite as many kids as possible with their families. He continues to do amazing charitable work in Nepal to this day, and has so far reconnected as many as 300 children.
Call me naive, willfully ignorant, or just uninformed, but before reading Little Princes I knew very little about child trafficking or the problems that face many poor families in this part of the world. Little Princes was a heartbreaking read, but I am no longer in the dark about some of the harsh realities people face. It taught me to travel with my eyes wide open, and to do my best to be a generous and compassionate person.
4) In Order to Live by Yeon-mi Park
As with Little Princes, In Order to Live by Yeon-mi Park also challenged my perception of the world. A true story about a young girl’s escape from North Korea, this book is both deeply moving and deeply disturbing. Moving, because of the amazing spirit, intelligence, and hope for humanity that the author displays after being in such an awful situation. Disturbing, because of the lengths she had to go to to be free - and because there are so many other women (and men) who may never be fortunate enough to escape.
Without getting into politics, nuclear weapons, or any of the other topics that send me into an automatic state of overwhelm, let’s just say: what’s happening in North Korea is not okay. My heart broke for the world when reading this book, but instead of making me want to stay in ‘safe New Zealand’, it reminded me not to take travel for granted. The more I travel, the more I learn, and more my heart grows with love and compassion for the world - no matter how fractured it may be in some places. I firmly believe that travel fosters increased cultural awareness and helps us to see that we’re all in this together.
5) The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons
This is the book I felt most nervous about including in this list. An epic historical romance, it often comes under fire for being a straight-up ridiculous love story (and for its straight-up ridiculous sex scenes). The older (and hopefully wiser) I get, the more I question whether this book is amazing or actually a bit shite - but I HAD to include it here because I have read it at least three times, so I would be a hypocrite to leave it out!
Let’s back up a few paces. The Bronze Horseman is a love story set in Russia during WW2. On the day Hitler declares war on the Soviet Union, a young Russian girl meets a dashing Russian (but he’s actually American) soldier in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). They fall in love and try to escape the blockaded city, but come up against many challenges along the way (such as the fact he’s dating her older sister).
Ridiculous love triangles aside, The Bronze Horseman opened up another world to me - that of Russia. The politics! The intrigue! The architecture! The language! The cooking! I first read this book in my teens and I’ve since re-read it twice - first, when I moved to France, second when I moved to England. It’s become my ‘homesickness book’. Whenever I’m adjusting to a new lifestyle, it offers a sense of escapism and comfort (no matter how ridiculous the storyline).
6) Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
No inspiring-travel-book-list would be complete without a shout out to Elizabeth Gilbert. I loved this book and never understood all the criticism surrounding it when it was first released. Elizabeth Gilbert is an exceptional storyteller - if you’re in any doubt about that, I encourage you to check out her Facebook page, where she shares words of wisdom most days that will floor you with their honesty, heart and hope.
So that’s my list! I’ve rambled on for long enough (can you tell I like books?), but what I’m really interested in are the books that inspired YOU to travel. Share your favourites in the comments below - I'll add them to my reading list and I might even review them on Travelher in the coming months.
Author - Jess O'Connor