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Top 10 Books for Travelers


"Around the World in 80 Days": A Companion to the BBC Mini-Series of the Same Name
By Michael Palin

In 1989, Michael Palin succeeded in getting someone to cover the necessary expenses to travel around the world. His premise involved following the route -- as precisely as possible -- taken by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." Palin would restrict himself to the means of travel available to Fogg -- so boats, trains, horse-drawn coaches, children and camels would all be allowed.

In an effort to squeeze every penny out of Palin, the BBC decided to publish the journals he kept during his trip. And although the book was intended as a companion to the 1989 BBC mini-series of the same name, the journals really do stand alone. The feel of the book is fully informed by a man who took every occasion to dress up in women's clothes for a laugh (stirring conclusion to "The Meaning of Life" for instance). He doesn't take himself very seriously, and yet his intelligence and self-awareness allow him to convey the ridiculous circumstances in which he finds himself. At the Pyramids, a camel renter insists that the camel is named "Michael" and that Palin don a traditional Arab headdress. He dines on salted squid innards -- a dish his guide tells him is literally unpalatable to Europeans -- in Tokyo, before giving a rousing rendition of "You are My Sunshine" at a local karaoke bar. Aboard an L.A.-bound container ship, he takes part in a bizarre ritual involving copious amounts of fake blood (ketchup), break-dancing and King Neptune's blessing as he crosses the International Date Line. But you don't have to take my word for it. Read it yourself.

I venture into the streets of Bombay in search of someone to remove eight days' growth of beard ... Sandwiched in between a professional letter writer and a man who organizes mongoose and snake fights, I find a barber who shaves me then and there on the grubby pavement with a cut-throat razor. Not something I shall tell my mother about, especially as I'm convinced from the way his fingers rather than his eyes seek out my face that he is blind. By the time he's finished shaving me, a crowd has gathered that would not disgrace a third division football club.

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life
By Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard

Instead of detailing an actual road trip, "The Monk and the Philosopher" is a book about the "spiritual journey." Jean-Francois Revel, a prominent French intellectual entrenched in Western science and thought, meets his son Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, in Katmandu to discuss both why Ricard decided for a clean break from the West and the difference between Eastern and Western thought in general. Ricard was once a promising young scientist in France, but after successfully defending his doctoral thesis, he shocked his family and friends by moving to Bhutan and becoming a monk. What drew him to the East? What are the points of contention between father and son? How have the ways each has chosen to live affected their relationship? These concerns drive the dialogue.

The book begins with a conversation about how Ricard has evolved from aspiring scientist to ordained Buddhist monk. But after clarifying how and when Ricard abandoned his research career, the men begin to engage in a dialogue informed by pride, bitterness and sincerity. Much of the book is an elucidation of the Buddhist approach to life, and Ricard's insistence that Buddhism is not unflinching dogma, but a living, breathing framework, from which one can arrive at a spiritual destination. Revel seems incapable or unwilling of understanding this key point, and this tension speaks volumes about the differences between East and West, father and son. Even for a Buddhist monk, the very embodiment of serenity, Ricard's patience is repeatedly tried. Both are trying to come to some understanding of what the other holds dear, while also resolutely defending their methods for tackling philosophy's primary quests -- eliminating the fear of death, while living the "good life." Their unique experiences traveling through life are certainly food for thought -- perhaps inspiring enough to start the reader on his or her own quest.

No dialogue, however enlightening it might be, could ever be a substitute for the silence of personal experience, so indispensable for an understanding of how things really are. Experience, indeed, is the path. And as the Buddha often said, "it is up to you to follow it," so that one day the messenger might become the message.

Travels with Charley in Search of America
By John Steinbeck

As one of the great American authors, Steinbeck has little to prove in terms of writing. But there came a time in his life where he began to get the sense that the America he had written of in his seminal works had morphed into something wholly unfamiliar. To reacquaint himself with a clearer picture of his motherland, he decided to set out on a three-month journey with his friend Charley the standard poodle. The natural beauty he encounters along the way in places like Montana and the redwood forests of California are juxtaposed against the ugly bigotry and closed-mindedness of many Americans he meets. This hatred is certainly very painful for Steinbeck, and the sad realization that his ideal vision of America -- an America where the loss of innocence may open the door for positive growth -- may never materialize makes for a melancholy experience.

Steinbeck is a natural reporter, able to convey scenes, such as his route through the changing New England foliage, with great accuracy. But he also injects his writing with experience and passion, and this is what makes "Travels with Charley" so engaging.

For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America, I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus, I discovered I did not know my own country.

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    --Written by Genevieve S. Brown, Sarah Schlichter and Dan Askin
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