The author of the best-selling Afghanistan memoir The Places in Between serves as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Below, he names his favorite travel books.
The Baburnama by Zahiruddin Babur Shah (out of print). The 500-year-old diary of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, describes his journey from political exile to his conquest of a giant Muslim empire. He is a poet, a general, a statesman, a wine
connoisseur, and, above all, a gardener. He does not attempt to conceal his defeats, his embarrassments, his unrequited loves. His clipped, confident prose reveals both the glory and the limits of medieval Central Asia.
India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul (out of print). A great, patient encyclopedia of India, illuminating the present through long biographies of tradesmen, entrepreneurs, and retired court officials. Strong prejudices and learning, controlled in careful, objective prose.
Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles M. Doughty (Adamant Media, 2 vols., $33 each). Part pilgrim, part martyr-manqué, Doughty walks for two years through the most xenophobic areas of Arabia in the 1870s, enduring beatings, fevers, poverty, and death threats. He recorded it in an archaic Anglo-Saxon–inflected epic prose.
Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (Penguin, $20). “Je hais les voyages et les explorateurs”—“I hate journeys and travelers”—is the first line. The structural anthropologist’s ironic, paradoxical insights into “primitive culture” and the illusions of foreigners are combined with an adventure up the Amazon.
River Town by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, $15). A Peace Corps volunteer describes two years teaching in a Chinese city on the Yangtze. Hessler’s 2006 book is open to the comedy of the everyday; it’s self-deprecating, respectful, and funny. It captures the provincialism, the modernity, the xenophobia, and the energy of modern China.