Heading off for the summer? Then I’ve got a top 5 for you: my Top 5 Great Escape Books – that’s books from travel writers or adventurers or pioneers or anything else that falls into that category. As categories go, it’s a bit cloudy, but what’re ya gonna do?
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux travels overland through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, using almost any method of travel he can get his hands on.
Now Theroux might not be everyone’s cup of tea – he can be a priggish old sourpuss at times (like when he spends 5 pages moaning about why aid workers won’t give him a lift across the border in their shiny four-by-fours) – but he combines his usual curmudgeonly attitude with a gusto for throwing himself at life (like when he spends a night talking to businessmen, then hookers, then friends).
Yep, when it comes to adventuring, Theroux’s books are up there with the best.
From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple
With a penchant for the most arcane parts of history, William Dalrymple is travel writing’s best kept secret. In From the Holy Mountain, he follows the journey of the monk John Moschos, who hiked through the Byzantine empire in the seventh century (see what I mean when I said he has a penchant for the most arcane parts of history?).
Dalrymple’s writing is brilliant though – using history to explain modernity, and combining a scholarly approach with a readable, journalistic style and a dark sense of humour.
My favourite bit is when he loses his chance to meet some Nestorian Christian refugees on the border of Syria and Turkey, only find out that there’s a big Nestorian community back in Ealing:
”Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.”
Yep – if you’ve not read one of his books, they’re worth a go.
A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin
Joe Parkin sneaks into this top 5 because he was a trailblazer for American cyclists in the 80s – Belgium wasn’t just a different country for US cyclists back then, it was a different world.
In a Dog in a Hat, Joe Parkin lays bare the life of an anonymous pro in all it’s gory details. From the long hours of unforgiving training, the team mates, the bribes, the drugs, the torture of racing for hours without a chance of winning, and the feeling of immortality after a long day on the drops.
Best of all, Joe makes all of this sound like Punk Rock:
The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe
Pytheas didn’t escape far (from Marseille to Britain), but that was in the days when visiting the next town over made you a pioneer. Long before Julius Caeser was even a glint in the milk-man’s eye, Pytheas set off on his travels to Britain and Ireland writing an account packed with details of trade routes, metallurgy, astronomy, natives, legends and the monuments that filled the place. He even ventured as far north as Iceland (which is a bit out of the way, like he maybe got lost?).
Pytheas’s original manuscript has long since disappeared, but it gets quoted in all kinds of historical texts, so Cunliffe pieces together the story of his travels, and the archaeological evidence that supports it in under 200 pages.
It’s a fascinating journey, if not a long one. As great escapes go, it’s one of the boldest, if not the furthest.
Hello, is this Planet Earth? by Tim Peake
Hard to argue that British Astronaut hasn’t traveled more than most travel writers out there, right? He’s definitely gone farther than anyone else on this list. Anyway, this is his photo book from his time up on the International Space Station.
There’s not much to it – just page after page of some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen: the pyramids, the Amazon, the Volga, Manhattan, London, and much more (plenty of lovely space shots in there too).
Every page looks like it has had a cool million pounds spent on it.
If you’re looking for a great escape, then slipping the surly bonds of earth is possibly the greatest escape of all.
So what do you think? Agree or disagree? Have you read any of them – what did you think? Absolute tosh, or about right? What would your top 5 Great Escape books?
Let me know in the comments!
After more inspiration? Then why not check out one of these top 5s too: