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Recommended Reads:

Jeff Tucker's

Travel Literature List












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Recommended Reads:
Jeff Tucker's Travel Literature List


Jeff Tucker is a consummate wanderer, adventurer and devotee of travel literature.  When I caught up with him, he was living in Hokkaido, Japan.  To my delight, he was able to find time between climbing and hiking adventures to compile this wonderful list.  It's one of the best adventure travel lists I've ever seen--and I think you'll enjoy his perceptive and insightful reviews.


Here's Jeff's introduction to his list:

I'm a practicing Buddhist and have a fascination with mystical quests and mythology in general, so most of my favorite books have an element of the spiritual hidden in them. A good example is The Snow Leopard which overwhelmed me when I read it.  Yet, one scientific type met in Khumbu later blew it off as a "bunch of mystical crap."  "This guy is full of it," I recall hearing him say to our protestations. 


Mine is a different view. I believe that the best outdoor books are more than simple tales of adventure, that the best books are infused with a great degree of passion, written with care and full of wry humor, avoid egotism, and if possible, point subtly to that something which hangs in the air we breath, best described by the Sioux as The Great Mystery.

I have spent now the better part of the past twenty years in Asia, and I try to read books which relate to the local environs (thus to convince myself that I am reading as a kind of research, or self-improvement, rather than mere diversion). 


Maybe half of the books on my list deal with Asia.  Due to my interest in culture, comparative religion and mythology, and due to Asia being populated by ancient and fascinating cultures, even in remote regions, travel and adventure books in Asia, unlike those in the Amazon or North America, often must focus to a much larger degree than some readers would like on the history and peoples indigenous to the environments. But even the Journals of Lewis and Clark were much more interesting due to the observations of the native people and their customs, whom they met on their long holiday to Astoria.


I began working on a list on the weekend, and resisted going to the mountains, which anyway were forecast to be flooded with heavy rains. The result reflects a personal favor for travel and exploration, trekking and mountaineering, as opposed to sport-oriented outdoor pursuits, such as mountain climbing. Quality of writing is a major factor in each choice. All too many great adventures have been described by those who have little skill in telling a good tale; on the other hand, many fine writers start out with no real story to tell. These books, for the most part, provide a good tale written well. Titles are listed in order of preference. Enjoy them (if you can find them!)     


-- Jeff Tucker.   (Material on this page Copyright,  Jeff Tucker.  Permission required for use.)


* Stars below indicate works appearing on other best book lists


1. Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper *

Account of numerous first ascents and other exploratory climbs in the Alps during the golden age of mountaineering, all woven around the ongoing obsession with being the first to scale the Matterhorn. The book culminates with that famous climb, and the terrible accident during the descent. Written in great style, with wonderfully descriptive passages, and illustrated with Whymper's own famous engravings. A joy to read. 


* Another Review | Amazon.com: More Information


2. Trans Himalaya (in three volumes) by Sven Hedin 

Hedin's lengthy account (over 1300 pages in three volumes) of his important explorations in central and western Tibet over a three-year period, shortly after the turn or the century. He was a scientific explorer, but he went because exploration was his passion, and it shows in the feeling, the poignant descriptions of places and characters. Packed with enough hair-raising adventures and difficulties for a dozen adventure tales. However, it is very difficult to obtain (I got mine from the Pilgrim's Bookstore in Kathmandu, reprinted in India with almost five hundred copies of the original photographs). 


While Trans Himalaya remains hard to find, the 500-page volume of Sven Hedin's adventures entitled My Life as an Explorer: The Great Adventurer's Classic Memoir is available.  See description below. 


Information at Amazon.com


3. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog *

The classic tale of the first 8000 meter peak to be climbed. Dictated to a writer from the hospital bed where Herzog was recuperating from the adventure. Told in a fast-paced, simple style, Herzog starts, and the story begins to sweep ahead after a few pages. Hard to put down. Definitely the best of all the many expedition books ever written, with the possible exception of Shipton's book, "Nanda Devi," to be found in number five, below. 


*Amazon.com: More Information


4. The Collected Mountain Books by William H. Tilman 

Hailed by many as the greatest of all adventure-explorer writers, Tilman's small-scale exploratory expeditions, often in the company of his friend Shipton, provided him with ample opportunity to work on his craft. Written in a scholarly, masterful style, but with fine balance and plenty of dry humor and understated restraint. Requires more effort to read than many of the more breezy, egocentric writers since, but the effort is worthwhile. Seven books are combined in one volume, covering a twenty-five year period and three continents. 


A version by the Mountaineers also includes his sailing books: More Information


5. The Collected Mountain Books by Eric Shipton 

Companion volume to Tilman, above. Written in a very different style, more full of passion and feeling, many find him the more easy to read. Several of the six books relate to the same expeditions as Tilman, but it seems all the more interesting for that. Contains one of the greatest of all tales of exploration and discovery: "Nanda Devi." The story of finding the route to the long-sought peak and its inaccessable sanctuary, through the Rishi Gorge, by an expedition of five members: himself and Tilman and three sherpas, with a budget of several hundred dollars. 


Amazon.com: More Information


6. Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer *

The classic true story which proves that truth is stranger than fiction. Now famous because of the movie, but the book is much better, and sticks to the facts. The facts, and the simple, straightforward way in which they are told, need nothing more to intrigue the reader. 

     An Olympic skier and one of the first to scale the Eiger's North Face, Harrer goes on the German expedition to Nanga Parbat in the late thirties, and is thrown into a prison camp in the Himalayan foothills of British India upon returning, with war having broken out. 

     Their attempts at escape, and their success, and the long trek across the length of Tibet to Lhasa, where he and his companion Aufschnaiter lived until nineteen fifty, with Harrer becoming a tutor to the teenaged Dalai Lama, reads like a novel which you would find too strange to be true. But it is true. 

     Things were changed on my second visit, but the first time I went to Tibet, the Chinese had left the Dalai Lama's bedroom untouched since his flight to India, and there, prominently in view among the Dalai Lama's belongings, had been a photo of Heinrich Harrer. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


7. Roughing It by Mark Twain  *

It's not often you get to read a travelogue that takes you through such a variety of localities and events, which features amusing yet revealing personal meetings with historically important figures, such as Brigham Young, and yet has been written by a renowned author. With his usual humor, and plenty of exaggerated description, Twain leads the reader west by stagecoach to the mining fields of Virginia City in Nevada, where he spent considerable time, and thence on to California, finally even going on to Hawaii, where he meets the redoubtable queen of those islands. By turns hilarious and fascinating. 


* Another Review | Amazon.com:More Information


8. My Life as an Explorer by Sven Hedin *

A summary of Hedin's fantastic career as an explorer, in the middle east, in Central Asia, and in Tibet. Written for a more casual "armchair audience" than his scholarly accounts were, this book will keep you reading as adventure after adventure is colorfully described, in the near-disastrous first crossings of the Takla Makan Desert, penetration of high passes in the Pamir or Himalaya or Kunlun Mountains, and encounters with bandits or bouts with starvation. Beautifully described scenes of discoveries and incidents abound. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


9. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen *

A book which can change your life. A masterpiece of lyrical writing, describing one man's inner journey during an outer journey to study blue sheep in a remote area behind the Himalaya in Western Nepal, with the ever-present hope of finding a rare snow leopard. 

     The snow leopard becomes a symbol for that mystery which each of us, at those rare moments when our minds hold still, may suddenly sense as we stand amid nature, but which, hard as we try, remains unseen. Perhaps, this tale hints, it is our own effort at finding that nameless mystery, as in the tale of Parzival and the Grail, which prevents us from glimpsing it. Only when we let go of trying might the infinite then appear, without being chased away by ego. 

     A profound and moving book on many levels; winner of the National Book Award, and still, in this person's view, despite the success of Matthiessen's fiction, the masterpiece he will most be remembered by.


* * Amazon.com: More Information


10. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby *

A great story by a great travel writer about a preposterously planned trip into Afghanistan (before the modern era of chaos overtook the country) to do a first ascent on a previously unseen peak in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The two solitary adventurers, with as much climbing experience as they had knowledge of the terrain, set out into the wilds of the Afghani frontier, and a formidable array of trouble and adventures. Written with sublimely understated humor and dry wit, it is hilariously funny and fun. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


11. The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman

A Western classic, by a man who was to become one of America's foremost historians and scholars. Between the days of the Mountain Men and before the Civil War, prior to the great streams of immigrants who filled the western wilderness, a young Francis Parkman decided to satisfy his curiosity about the Native American cultures of the great plains and see the great wilderness before it was gone forever. 

     Innocently he wandered west, between perilous events, right into the surprised company of the Sioux nation, where he lived, near the Black Hills, among them for many months, before returning east to write his account, again passing alone through lands where, had he been caught, his life would almost certainly have come to an end. His fascinating descriptions of the land and peoples along the way provide a taste of better things to come, in his histories of early American and Canadian history. 


Amazon.com: More Information


12. News From Tartary by Peter Fleming * 

By the brother of Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, this is a remarkable story of his trek, on foot and on pony or mule, in the company of a female colleague, across China and Central Asia and Tibet, over the mountains and into British India, before the war. Supposedly done to check out the truth of rumored Russian intrigues in the islamic oases of the old silk road in what is now China, Fleming and his associate complete an amazing trek across some of the most remote regions of the world, and all the while his dry humor is used well to give the reader an amusing and interesting commentary on this "secret mission," which is more a test of survival and endurance than anything else.


* Amazon.com: More Information


13. Passages from Arabia Deserta by Charles Montagu Doughty 

Not for the casual reader, but for one who is willing to put up with the author's experimental style of English, which he hoped would revitalize the language by this project, it is a classic journal, in two volumes, of a Victorian Englishman's explorations among the Bedouin of the empty quarter in Saudi Arabia, in the 1880's. Full of perils and descriptions of life in the harsh region, it was hailed by T.E. Lawrence as the greatest book he had ever read, and by Henry Miller as one of the most influential he had come across in his readings. 


Amazon.com: Search Barnes & Noble.com for Used Copies


14. Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons by John Wesley Powell *

Although a scientific expedition, Powell's famous penetration of the Colorado River's canyon systems in the "Great American Desert," and his journals of that trip, taken in the 1860's, are among the treasures of American experience. He could write beautifully when called upon to do so, and the weird and unexpected scenery of the slickrock canyons moved him often to write well. Not knowing what lay before them as they plunged ahead ever deeper into the roaring depths of the Grand Canyon, this is a tale of adventure as well as a commentary on the natural history and geology of the region. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


15. Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev 

A little known book, but a famous movie, as the Soviet government sought out the great Japanese director, Kurosawa, to complete a three year project in Siberia to bring this true story to film; the film won an academy award in 1975 as best foreign language film, and has been called "the greatest film on man and nature ever made." But if you can find a copy of the English translation of Arseniev's journals, read them. 

     Arseniev was a surveyor-explorer working for the Czar's government around the turn of the century, and assigned to do a series of explorations in the Russian far east, along the Pacific. He found as a guide an old native hunter, Dersu, and his tales of adventures in the ensuing years, among the forests of Siberia, and the relationship between himself, a man of the city and modern civilization, and Dersu, a true man of nature, who lived alone all year as a wandering hunter, are fascinating and often enlightening reading. 


Amazon.com: More Information


16. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey *

Not really adventure, or exploration, but this little classic by America's champion of the southwest deserts, is a gem of outdoor and nature writing. In the form of loosely connected essays, Abbey explores many areas, and as he does so, he raises a diverse range of topics about our society and our environment. And the love he felt for the beauty of the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest, comes across clearly on every page. 


* * Another Review | Amazon.com: More Information


17. My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel *

The prolific writer-explorer of Tibetan topics, in the early part of this century, dreamed of actually reaching the forbidden city of Lhasa, and finally, with her indefatigable companion monk, Yongden, she made a remarkable pilgrimage to Lhasa, disguised as a pilgrim. Enduring severe hardships, she managed, after a long journey, to reach the fabled city, and she describes the journey in her usual, dime-novel style. It comes off like a thriller. 

     The only drawback is her blatant biases, most notably her anti-Dalai Lama bias, which colors all her observations of Tibetan life and politics, and was due to her freindship with the Panchen Lama. But don't let this put you off from one of the most unbelievable tales of true adventure ever written. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


18. A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey 

Andrew Harvey went to the Tibetan Buddhist region of Ladakh, in northern India, to explore the land, and it is obvious, to write a book that might start a career. He succeeded in both, and more than that, he found something spiritual, too, something which seems somehow missing from our modern lives. Written in simple but extremely beautiful prose, almost like poetry, in the form of interconnected short essays and passages. 


Amazon.com: More Information


19. Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator by Edward Whymper 

The English climber, already famous from his conquering of the fabled Matterhorn, took a journey to South America, and his climbs among the Andes provided him with an opportunity to write another book, as full of detail and observations of the countryside and its people as the earlier book (see number one, above), and with enough climbing action thrown in to keep it interesting. 


Amazon.com:  More Information


20. The Journals of Lewis and Clark *

What more can be said? The journals of this pair of explorers, complete with all their quaint spelling errors and syntax, are part of the American Heritage. Their grand trek across the wilderness vastness of North America, to the Pacific and back, must be one of the great adventures of all time, and we are fortunate to have an account of it, written not by one, but by both of them.


* Amazon.com: More Information


21. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer *

This now over-hyped story provoked an orgy of Everest publications. Why did so many who never before read any books about mountains suddenly pick this up? Because it is a great book, and word of mouth spread the news. Indisputably well-written, it is a true account of an adventure that turned into a nightmare of survival and death. A page-turner, not many who start to read it will fail to finish, and they will probably finish sooner than they expect.


* *Amazon.com: More Information


22. The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev and Weston DeWalt *

Should be read as a companion volume to Into Thin Air, above. This one is told by one of the chief guides on that ill-fated day, and provides a different perspective on the whole affair, often showing things from a more understandable view. As one of the most respected climbers of the eighties and nineties, Boukreev informs readers of details and thinking which Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, leaves out. Many reviewers feel this book is, despite being less well written, the more satisfying account of that infamous day on Everest. If you read, or have read, Into Thin Air, then this one also should be read, if only to make you realize that we may never know what really happened out there, and why. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


23. Where the Indus is Young by Dervla Murphy 

A journey in winter in Baltistan, with ponies. Dervla Murphy is one of the most prolific of travellers and her many books are all worth reading. This one is arguably the best. She came to Baltistan in winter to be sure to miss foreign tourists, and brought along her small daughter. Together the two of them made their way from Skardu, down along the course of the Indus River by pony and on foot, following the old trade paths in the canyon, and staying with whoever and wherever they could, to survive. A different kind of adventure, from a different kind of explorer, who shows us how to find adventures without going to extremes of hurling our bodies off precipices, and yet which are none the less thrilling. And she is a good writer, too. 


Amazon.com: More Information


24. The Northwest Coast by James G. Swann 

This is a famous account, published by the University of Washington Press, about the years James Swann spent, during the 1850's and 60's, along the coast of the Washington Territory with the Willapah native people. 

     At a time when very few settlers indeed had come to these areas, Swann came from the California goldfields, an intellectual, well-educated, and with an investigative mind, and dropped out of society to become one of the "oyster boys" living with the natives and gathering oysters for export south to San Francisco. Among this rough crowd, Swann stands out, writing constantly about anything and everything around him, and tells of his many excursions up and down the coast or into the interior, toward the infant capital of Olympia, with the eye of a scientist and the pen of a highly literate scholar. 


Northwest Coast is Out of Print and difficult to find.  Your best best is to try a search on Google.


25. Over the High Passes by Christina Noble 

Christina Noble spent a year in the Indian Himalaya and the plains of Punjab, with the nomadic Gaddi people and their flocks, following them and living with them as they moved from the plains into the Himalaya to their high pastures. Exhilarating and refreshingly optimistic, her narrative tells of the people with whom she lived and came to know, and of their adventures together among some of the roughest mountain terrain in the world. Well written, this book helps us understand that other ways of life are as good as our own, and that the adventures we seek are just the stuff of daily life for many people in the world.


Out of Print: Search Amazon.com for Used Copies


26. Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby 

Another story by the author of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, above. This time he takes his wife on his absurd odyssey: starting from the base of the Himalaya, where the Ganges River flows onto the plains, he floats down the holy river in a small boat for over a thousand miles, with his final goal the Bay of Bengal. Funny as always, his descriptions of incidents along the way, and meetings and sights, provide great entertainment. 


Amazon.com: More Information


27. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger *

The little-known Thesiger (in the U.S., anyway) was one of the most redoubtable explorers of the twentieth century. He was fascinated with deserts, and people of the deserts. This book describes his journeys in the most inhospitable of desert regions, the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia, which he became the first man to cross from one side to the other, and more than just once, despite the close calls with death. 


* Amazon.com: More Information


28. Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell *

Over a twelve year period, the mountain man and fur trapper Russell kept a journal of his experiences. In it we find descriptions of the great fur rendezvous, brushes with danger both human and animal, and of the country through which he passed. Notable in his journals are perhaps the earliest written accounts of a visit to the Yellowstone region, and the natural wonders of boiling mud, steaming geysers, and hot springs. 

     An amazing book, especially considering that he carried this diary around for all those years and through so many incidents, writing entries diligently in his rough surroundings and company, and the words have survived, to come down to us in an inexpensive paperback form. An indispensable narrative for anyone interested in the history, the exploration, and the landscape of the American west. Furthermore, a pleasure to read. 


* Amazon.com:More Information


29. Three Years in Tibet by Ekai Kawaguchi 

Another exciting and true tale to come out of that forbidden land of Tibet. Ekai Kawaguchi was a brilliant and mysterious Buddhist monk from Japan, who, disguised as a Tibetan monk on pilgrimage from the far regions of the land, where different dialects are common, he made his way to Lhasa in the beginning of this century and set himself up as a medical doctor. He lived there for three years in order to translate lost Mahayana Buddhist texts into Japanese . . . or is that all he was up to? 

     At times, and to many, Kawaguchi seemed more like a spy, sent to Tibet by the increasingly militaristic and expansionist Japanese government for some sort of intrigue. Whatever the truth, Kawaguchi was a a remarkable man, a friend of the English woman, Annie Besant, who was president of the Theosophical Society, fluent in English, a scholar of Sanskrit, and who mastered Tibetan language and customs in several years of hard study in Darjiling before sneaking into Tibet through the Himalaya of Western Nepal. 

     He was full of biases too, and surprisingly narrow-minded for a monk, even surpassing some Victorian explorers. Oddly enough for an adventurer, he was woefully lacking in any sense of direction, a fact which lends great confusion as to his actual routes, while at the same time adds to the many adventures which he plunges himself into, again and again, largely due to ignorance of his whereabouts. This strange and entertaining tale is only available from Nepal or India, published by Ratna Pustak Bhandar co. 


Out of Print: Search Amazon.com for Used Copies


30. Twenty Years Before the Mast by Charles Erskine 

This is a fascinating account of the five year sailing expedition, from 1838 to 1842, financed by James Smithson of future Smithsonian fame, and told by one ordinary sailor. The purpose of the voyage was one of exploration and collecting of knowledge, as Smithson already had a visualization of what the Smithsonian museum should become. It was thus the first great global expediton financed by the young American nation, and they went everywhere. 

     Erskine, a literate sailor, had spent much of his life on various sailing ships, but the book does not cover twenty years, as the title implies. It focuses wholly on the Smithson expedition. In an easy-to-read style, Erskine relates what he sees: the stench and horror of black slave-ships along the coast of Africa or in the new world, the wonders of Hawaii, the wilderness coast of Puget sound and the area around present-day Seattle. 

     In Fiji, one quote may indicate the kind of surprises which await the reader: "One morning a big canoe came alongside our ship with two chiefs and nine roasted human bodies. The chiefs were bound for one of the leeward islands to have a feast with their brother, the head chief of the island." It is a fun book to read, about America's first foray into world exploration. 


Out of Print: Search Amazon.com for Used Copies




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