P.J. O’Rourke Picks His Favorite Travel Books

P.J. O’Rourke, author of Holidays in Heck, describes great travel writing from Marco Polo to Hunter S. Thompson.

The Travels Marco PoloA hick peddler from underdeveloped Europe stumbles into the world’s most sophisticated—not to say only—civilization. His book is naive enough to qualify as the original Lonely Planet guide. Here is Marco’s bug-eyed take on paper currency: “The Great Khan has money made for him out of the bark of trees … Of this money the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world.”

Domestic Manners of the AmericansFanny Trollope In the 1820s Anthony Trollope’s mother spent two miserable years in Cincinnati and wrote the great anti–de Tocqueville account of America. Pigs ran wild in the streets. “And though it is not very agreeable to live surrounded by herds of these unsavory animals, it is well they are so numerous, and so active in their capacity of scavengers, for without them the streets would soon be chocked up with all sorts of substances in every stage of decomposition.” She sounds like my mother on the subject of foreign travel.

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & MeccahSir Richard Francis Burton Burton, the most rash and irrepressible adventure seeker of the 19th century, disguised himself as an Afghan and became the first European to fully explore the forbidden holy cities of Islam. He penetrated the Kaabah itself, secretly sketching its interior on his shawl while pretending to pray. But his book’s a slog. He was a terrible writer. You’re better off reading Burton, the excellent biography by Byron Farwell.

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasHunter S. Thompson Actually, nothing happens on this journey. Two men in early middle age visit Las Vegas while intoxicated. They frighten a few people (mostly each other), are rude to bystanders and astonish a cleaning lady. A couple of rental cars and several bathrooms are left the worse for wear. Then they skip out on their hotel bill. From this Thompson created a work of enduring genius.

Another Day of LifeRyszard KapuscinskiDespite working for communist Poland’s aptly named PAP press agency, Kapuscinski was the 20th century’s best foreign correspondent. In 1975 he went from benighted Warsaw to far more benighted Luanda to cover the civil war in Angola. He evokes the sweating, choking fear that’s ever-present in guerrilla combat more effectively than anything short of my coming over to your house and shooting at you.

Steaming to BamboolaChristopher Buckley There’s something awfully realistic about the imaginative conceits in Christopher’s magnificent comic novels. Perhaps it’s because he’s seen an awful lot of reality. To begin with, there was his stint in the Merchant Marine. The result is what Two Years Before the Mast would have been like if Richard Henry Dana Jr. had had a sense of humor.

P.J. O’Rourke has written numerous books of humor and commentary. His most recent work is Holidays in Heck, about traveling with his family.