I confess, I have recently read and loved Shantaram after it popped up on a google search for “books about India”. It wasn’t until I’d researched it a little more that I realised it was basically the most cliched book a backpacker can walk around India with. Like reading Marching Powder in Bolivia or Eat Pray Love as you explore Bali, it really is the ultimate backpacker tale of discovering a new country.
However, despite the cliches and the fact that many backpacker favourites are looked down on, there are many that are well worth a read. Here are my top ten cliched but awesome books for backpackers! You don’t even need to worry about getting hold of a copy as you travel, I can pretty much guarantee they will be in a book swap in 97% of hostels you stay at in the relevant country or region.
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Inspired by roadtrips taken in the US in the 1940s, where drugs, jazz music and poetry were the defining influences, Kerouc wrote On The Road as a semi autobiographical memoir of his experiences. It’s later been said to have influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison to Allen Ginsberg.
Travellers will be familiar with the concept expressed by one early critic, Meghan O’Rourke, who explained it as about “the search for something meaningful to hold on to—the famous search for ‘IT,’ a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found.”
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
This one follows another set of dreamchasers, this time they’re chasing the American Dream all the way to Vegas. First published in Rolling Stone, it’s an epic ramble through the psychedelic journeys of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo and their reflections on 1960s culture and counter culture.
Into The Wild – Jon Krakauer
The tragic story of a solo adventure into the wilderness of Alaska, specifically Denali Park, which has to be one of the most beautiful yet inhospitable places in the US, this is sparking a dangerous copycat craze. Despite this alarming trend, the book is well worth a read. Christopher McCandless graduates from university, becomes estranged from his family and gives away $25,000 to Oxfam, before hitchhiking to Alaska with only limited supplies.
Marching Powder – Rusty Young
You’ll see many dog eared copies of this lurking in hostels around South America, it’s basically compulsory reading for backpackers in the region. This book was written after an Australian Law Graduate shacked up in a prison cell in La Paz with English drug trafficker Thomas McFadden, who was running illegal tours inside the notorious San Pedro jail.
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
This is the story of how 20 year old Guevara left Buenos Aires with a friend to explore South America for 9 months. They explore the Andes, the Amazon and the Atacama Desert and learn about the realities of life for communist revolutionaries, miners and indigenous families amongst others. This left him with a deep sense of the social injustice of Latin America and inspired his lifelong dream to try and improve things.
Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
It’s disputed how much of the book is truly autobiographical but my goodness is it a whirlwind of an adventure through India back in the 1980s. Set for the most part in Mumbai, with adventures in rural villages, Goa and even Afghanistan also documented, this tells the story of convicted armed robber and jail breaker ‘Lindsay’, who makes a life for himself in Mumbai after escaping Australia. It’s a flippin’ long read but I couldn’t put it down – 100% compulsive reading!
The Beach – Alex Garland
One of my other top choices of cliched books for backpackers, this is now more famous for the film starring Leo, but the book really is a great read. Searching for a paradise beach, away from the well worn travellers’ path through South East Asia, Richard finds himself on a remote island where a small community have established themselves alongside a local cannabis farm. The book tracks his adventures on ‘The Beach’ and what happens to the group who find themselves there together.
Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
Set variously in Italy, India, and Indonesia, this is the quintessential story of a woman’s journey to ‘find herself’ and reconnect to her spiritual side after divorce. Possibly the most cliched book on this list of cliches, but still pretty fun to read.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
Inspiring all my teenage dreams of beautiful Greek islands and mediterranean adventures, this is another favourite and my final recommendation of books for backpackers. At times bleak, it tells the tale of a young woman on the Greek island of Kefalonia and her experiences during the war. Her fiance heads to the front, whilst back home soldiers are posted to her area, and even to her home. This one is a lengthy read and really beautifully written.