7 Great International Reads

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international book day
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
–Groucho Marx
Groucho got it right. Books have gotten me through many less-than-ideal circumstances long train rides, trapped inside tents during storms (kind of close to inside a dog, I suppose), airport layovers, knee surgery, and many a pleasant afternoon on a park bench. Since August 9th is “Book Lovers’ Day”, settle in and read something that will inspire your next international journey.

1The Man Who Loved China by Simon WinchesterBeing a chemistry professor is usually a staid profession that involves long hours in the lab. Joseph Needham, an eccentric chemistry professor at Cambridge who somehow managed to fall in love with China and devote the rest of his life to studying it, weaves a story spanning the globe, and delves into his unique, brilliant, odd, and wacky personality.
2The Happy islands of Oceania by Paul TherouxTheroux, an inveterate traveler with deep perceptions about human nature, uses his skills to full effect in a long, island hopping journey ranging from Australia to Hawaii, where he paddles with sharks, hobnobs with prime ministers and Tongan monarchs, hangs out with native tribes, French expats, surfers, and cargo cults that appeared after World War 2. If this book doesn’t make you want to go buy a folding kayak, a plane ticket, and a lot of sunscreen, nothing ever will.
3The Innocents Abroad by Mark TwainIf anyone’s perception of human nature was sharper than Theroux’s, it was Twain’s. The best-selling travel book of all time, The Innocents Abroad was also the first American travel book t0 focus it’s lens on the “old world”. Europe and the Holy Land, as well as its travelers, and even its’ animals, are subjected to Twain’s unique combination of wit, penetrating insight, and feeling of history passing by. It’s both a great travel narrative and a window into the American mind of the late 1900s.
4The Silver Lotus by Thomas SteinbeckIf I were John Steinbeck’s son, I’d be too terrified to write a grocery list, let alone novels. But the younger Steinbeck did just that, and the Silver Lotus traces the evolution of an international family spanning the Pacific from Monterey to China, at a time when interracial relationships were taboo. You’ll remember the Hammond and Yee families for a long time.
5The Sun Also Rises by Ernest HemmingwayHemmingway’s best novel spans the seedy cafes of Paris, the bullfights of Spain, and, more importantly, the perpetual searching that is part of human nature. His sparse style hints at, but never fully reveals, the psychological wounds of war, the aimlessness of human nature in the aftermath of trauma, and an entire society’s search for itself amidst the leisure and exhalation of post WW1 and the 1920s. You’ll need-and want—to read it more than once.
6The Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe shortest and darkest book on this list, The Heart of Darkness is still a great travel read. The darkness, of course, is both real and metaphorical, and both in the landscape that Marlow explores in the Congo, and already existing inside him, waiting for the moment to make itself felt. For anyone who’s travelled in challenging places, at tumultuous times, or feels like they’ve partly lost themselves—or maybe found something they didn’t expect—on their journey, this is a great read.
7The Odyssey by HomerThe original travel narrative of fantastical proportions, there’s a reason it’s still being turned into Hollywood movies and that kayakers flock to the Greek Isles: it’s a great story. While we’re not likely to be kidnapped by a Cyclops or a love affair with a witch-goddess, it’s a story to spark anyone’s imagination.

by Neil Schulman


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