Updated on May 16, 2017
40 Inspirational Books
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one. ― George R.R. Martin,
Travelers and non-travelers all have something in common—we read. Everyone goes through phases where we’ve hit a wall and can’t find that next good book. I guarantee that once you read these uplifting books, your inspiration meters will jump through the roof and the traveler inside you will immediately want to take off! That’s why I created this list of 40 inspirational books filled with a mix of history, travel, biography and adventure surrounding a diverse array of topics and places. All of these books link to Amazon. What are we waiting for? Let’s go!
On the Road
Obvious alert! Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road isn’t the first book I’d read about far-flung places but it was definitely the finest telling of a trip from the American east coast to west and back. Read this book if you enjoy long sentences and have dreams of a journey filled life.
The Dharma Bums and More Kerouac
Confucius Lives Next Door
Confucius lives Next Door is a great read that opens up a discussion on how similar we are to cultures across vast oceans and tracts of land. T.R. Reid and his family learn lots about life in a totally foreign nation (Japan) and bring back lots of questions that can’t always be answered, like why McDonald’s doesn’t have a shrimp burger like they do in Japan.
See Jared Diamond’s Collapse for another look at our similarities but from the view of failed civilizations. It will definitely put aside any notions that our place in history is a special one.
Life of Pi
File Life of Pi under “Less Conventional Travel Inspiration” because it starts with a boat wreck and subsequent survival situation. However, Yann Martell’s beautiful book about a boy sharing a boat with a circus tiger holds so many lessons inside. It’s uplifting, spiritual, and anything else that leaves one a good feeling after reading.
Side Note: This is not the ideal movie to watch when you’re on a boat to Gili Air. #justsaying
In the Shadow of the Banyan
For a survival story that’s much sadder yet still worth a read, explore Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan. This book is an excellent way to start learning about Cambodia and its recent history. It tells the author’s personal—albeit fictionalized—story intertwined with the Khmer Rouge’s rise. Try to come out without an appreciation for your own place and with dry eyes.
If you ever wanted to learn about the frustrations of traveling with a drug addict or the ins and outs of Travel TV politics, then Medium Raw will do that service for you. Anthony Bourdain is a god in so many ways to travelers like myself and his honest writing about life and just about everything else solidifies his deistic role.
Read Kitchen Confidential for a truly disturbing yet eye-opening look into the restaurant world and the one that Bourdain wrote about to catapult himself onto the world stage.
I think we all have that one book that is meant to come at a specific time and place in our lives. For me, that’s this book. The Alchemist arrived in front of my eyes while we were traveling through Southeast Asia and pounded home the idea that I can do anything that I intend to do. I just have to keep pushing forward and believe in myself along the way. Don’t you agree?
The Alchemist made such a splash in my mind that I’ve neglected to explore any more of Paulo Coelho’s other works. The Pilgrimage retells the real-life journey made by the author and will soon be checked out by yours truly.
Korea: The Impossible Country
Having lived in South Korea for almost half a decade, The Impossible Country immensely helped me understand the country and its culture. I know any discussion about Korean society opens up a can of worms but this book brought a lot of insight into that quirky country, helping me form a smile instead of a frown when dealing with confusing situations.
Read Jon Stewart and the Daily Show’s America to understand the US and how it works (or not), even if you’re reading from elsewhere. It’s still a very apt assessment even if it’s over a decade old. Is there a book you’d like to share that helped your understanding of home?
Homage to Catalonia
It’s impossible to imagine myself living in a war zone, writing about it, and somehow participating in the battles that took place during such tragic times. George Orwell did that and created Homage to Catalonia as a result.
The Kite Runner
For a fictional telling of a very real story from the dark side, read The Kite Runner. This threads in Afghanistan’s descent into war along with the story of a boy and his friend. Honestly, any of Khaled Hosseini’s books are worth a reader’s attention. I can’t wait for him to continue producing more books!
The Rum Diary
Hunter Thompson’s chaos-filled Fear and Loathing books are better known but The Rum Diary is great fiction for those in need of a trip to Puerto Rico. I sensed some similarities to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises but otherwise, it’s a uniquely awesome read! I never watched the movie but can imagine it’s not as good as the book, which is 99-percent the case.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
Definitely, read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It’s a great mix of politics, adventure, and pure gonzo journalism as the great Dr. Thompson would say. You’ll never have to follow another U.S. Presidential election after reading it!
A House in the Sky
Place this book into a “glad it wasn’t me” frame of mind when reading. While reading through the terrible things Amanda Lindhout endured in A House in the Sky, she passes on some very valuable lessons. Even if you hear that a place or topic is deemed too dangerous to visit, shouldn’t you explore it anyway? Her story is terrifying in so many ways but also empowering.
Into the Wild
For those of us who want to get rid of everything and go on the ultimate journey, Into the Wild is the cautionary tale we all should read first. It’s a great book by John Krakauer and inspiring in the sense that you shouldn’t stay trapped in one place for too long. We’re meant to explore and should try to do that as much as possible throughout life, of which we only get one. One lesson I learned from this is that Alaska does not mess around. There’s a real wilderness out there.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Before the Fathom cruise we joined, this book formed most of what I knew about the Dominican Republic. While The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is marketed as fiction, Junot Diaz does well to describe the DR under Trujillo while threading it into one of my favorite stories. A main point of the story is about life as someone who doesn’t fit in. It’s at times funny, tragic, and both mixed together.
In the Time of the Butterflies
I finally read In the Time of the Butterflies and found it to be one of the most interesting stories, having never known anything before about the Mirabal sisters. It’s loosely based on their story and shows that no dictator has complete control over people, especially women.
On Familiar Terms: To Japan and Back, a Journey Across Cultures
On Familiar Terms describes Donald Keene’s journey from America to eventually becoming a Japanese art and history expert, but not before a stint during World War II as a translator. The author actually spoke at my university in Japan, in full Japanese at a level that required many of the natives to look up words in their pocket dictionaries.
Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion
History and art lovers will want to read Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion by Keene. It’s partly a story about the failed Ashikaga Yoshimasa but also a look at how this great complex was put together. This book inspired me to actually visit the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto, which I have on multiple occasions.
Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food
Read Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s telling of food history from fire to bottled water and try not to go out and buy a bucket of chicken. His description of raw food alone made my mouth water while reading the very first chapter. Don’t start Near a Thousand Tables when hungry. You’ve been warned.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses
On the other hand, you’re more than welcome to pick up a bottle of your favorite spirit and read Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses. This is a drinkable chronology of our globe. P.S. I had really good and encouraging History professors who made us read fun books.
You are a Badass
If you find yourself downtrodden while traveling, bummed that you’re not out there, or otherwise feeling unfulfilled, Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass is the perfect recipe for kicking your ass back into gear. Read it, love it, and get yourself moving after gulping down this wonderful book.
Don’t worry about reading Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s okay. You can read it but her more recently published Big Magic gets into a very important territory, such as how it’s possible to be a creative person and achieving dreams while maintaining a normal 9-to-5 existence.
Alex Garland’s The Beach on many travel reading lists and for quite a few reasons. It’s a go-to read for those hoping to leave it all behind and find their own secret getaway. I pondered on this book a lot when we were traveling in the Philippines, and after we stayed at my very own “Beach” at Anda. I wanted to keep it to myself and never share it with anyone. What would you do?
People will say The Beach is the ultimate backpacking novel but I think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild pursues more adventurous territory. Travel through her journey from bottom to finding herself while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and you’ll thank me for it later.
Read The Motorcycle Diaries without expecting Ernesto Guevara to become a revolutionary (Che) and you might just fall in love with the story on its own. Honestly, I admire he and his friend Albert Granado traveling so far throughout South America on the dodgiest of two wheels.
If you’re looking for something that covers all of Che’s life, then the epic Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson that is so intrinsically detailed that I wonder who he had to kill to get some of this info.
Ready Player One
I’m a bit of a science-fiction, dystopian, and 80s pop culture nerd so Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is right up my alley. Mix in all that with the ability to travel via virtual reality and you’ve got the recipe for a good story. There’s quite a bit of travel here, though most of it is virtual. Residents of Columbus, Ohio will be happy that their city gets a shout in this book.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I can’t mention Sci-Fi adventure without Douglas Adams masterpiece Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s so much inspiration and humor within its pages for me to cover here. I love his wit and all the stories within this epic book. All I can say is, “Don’t panic” and bring your towel.
You Gotta Have Wa
If you know me, then you know that I like baseball and that some of my all-time favorite memories involve trips to the Tokyo Dome with my teacher, Kunio Nishimura. I probably wouldn’t have been so enthused about going if it weren’t for You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting. It’s a great collection of stories about baseball players who traveled from the U.S. to Japan and either struggled or prospered.
I don’t think Japanese or even Korean baseball games approach the atmosphere of English football, and I thank Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch for confirming that. Forgoing everything in the name of his beloved Arsenal, Hornby is supposedly still an avid fan and someone I’d like to share a match with someday.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Many people will cite 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as their favorite fiction book. Jules Verne was just an awesome predictor of technologies that we’d come to use half a century later. Take the electric submarine used by Captain Nemo in this book. He’s not done yet, my friend.
From the Earth to the Moon
Read Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and you’ll think that it’s written at the dawn of the great Space Race. Nope. He wrote about projectiles carrying people to the moon way back in 1865, a century before man first set foot on our only permanent satellite.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America is pithy and saucy with his words but I can’t get enough. Maybe I wouldn’t if I were from Iowa, or had relatives from there. I’m stuck on this book because I have a thing for small towns, so why not enjoy reading a travel god move through some of them in literary form?
I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Sure it’s apocalyptic but read the first few chapters of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and you’ll be inspired to visit the Red Planet. Honestly, the spirit of that first chapter is something I’ve longed to recreate without blatantly copying Ray Bradbury.
I threw Stephen King’s The Gunslinger because you should’ve read it and the rest of the Dark Tower series by now, and shame on you if you haven’t yet. It starts with an epic chase and through a variety of interesting characters, so thank me for the introduction.
Are there any spectacular books that you’d like to share? Something you wouldn’t have on this list? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below:)
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