Probably the most famous road trip book ever written, Kerouac’s fictionalization of his cross-country wanderings is known as the book of the Beat Generation, immortalizing the counterculture of drugs, jazz and emerging masculinity exemplified by writers like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac himself. Retrace any of the routes taken by Kerouac’s autobiographical narrator, Sal Paradise, as he adventures around the country.
Maybe, like Paradise, you’ll spend most of your time exploring California and the American southwest, even dipping down into Mexico (I hope without the prostitutes and the dysentery, but hey, suit yourself). Or maybe you’ll cruise mostly through the mid-west or the deep south, listening to live jazz in poorly lit bars or chatting up merchant sailors on shore leave. Whatever your route–rural or urban, interstates or back road–Kerouac’s classic is practically required road trip reading, even for those of us not quite as interested in the establishment of masculine identity as Paradise and his pals were.
Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler
Peter Hessler is the author of two previous books on China (Country Driving is the concluding book his a non-fiction “trilogy” which also includes Oracle Bones and River Town]) and a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007. Of his latest book, Country Driving, my co-worker Megan (I work at an independent book store in Cambridge, MA) writes “As the number of cars in China skyrockets, everything else in society changes: roads reduce the isolation of rural towns…there’s more food, more wealth, more pollution, more trash, and a totally different set of stresses and challenges for everyone in the country.” A clear-eyed and humorous exploration of the human side of the Chinese economic revolution, Country Driving deftly explores the shifting landscape of the Chinese nation.
Thinking of driving across China yourself? Be ready for some craziness — in an interview with Harper’s, Hessler says “driving itself [in China] is totally chaotic. They have training courses that I describe in the book where the people who are teaching people how to drive don’t know how to drive themselves—it’s the blind leading the blind. There’s also a section in the book where I describe that people drive the way they walk; they do it instinctively. They don’t really use turn signals and they rely heavily on automobile body language—you just look at the car ahead of you and if it’s inching a little to the left, maybe it’s about to make a turn. It’s a type of directed chaos, and it is dangerous.”
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, (BBC Radio Dramatization starring Ian Holm)
No road trip book list would be complete without an awesome audiobook, and this BBC dramatization of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is epic in many senses of the word: superbly performed, faithful to the text, wise in its abridgments, and (despite them) more than 13 hours long. Follow the fellowship’s quest across Middle Earth from the Shire through Elvin country into the cave kingdoms of the dwarves, across Rohan and Gondor (the realms of men, if you didn’t know), and travel with Frodo and Sam as they struggle toward Mordor. Even if you’re driving 600 miles through the most boring place on earth, The Lord of the Rings will keep you rivetingly entertained.
You’ll be tempted to close your eyes and imagine you’re in Middle Earth. But obviously that’s a terrible idea if you’re driving, so save the reveries for the passenger seat. And if you want to listen to The Lord of the Rings in a “familiar” setting, why not engage in some “self-drive” exploration of New Zealand, where Peter Jackson filmed his academy-award winning film adaptions of Tolkein’s trilogy. Just remember, as you’re heading from Christchurch to Dunedin, it’s kilometers per hour, not mph, and stay on the left side of the road! If a Kiwi road atlas is all Greek to you, check out these “themed-highway” journeys to get yourself started.
The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World by Ted Conover
You can’t have road trips without roads. And this book is all about roads: their origins, their evolution, their uses and their drawbacks, their present and their–our–future. This book explores six of the world’s most important thoroughfares and the activities that rely upon them, including the (sometimes illicit) trucking of mahogany logs on high-altitude mountain roads in Peru, the connection between road transport and the spread of AIDS in Africa and the hazards and humiliations of driving across the Palestinian-Israeli border in the West Bank.
Though you may not want to undertake any of Conover’s journeys yourself, this book will draw your attention to details you might otherwise have missed, asking you to notice the particulars of your journey that aren’t explicitly related to sightseeing, refueling or managing a speedy commute between points A and B.
And though its title (The Routes of Man) denotes the masculine bias that characterizes most historical and contemporary road trip writing (you’ll notice that none of the books on this list were written by women), Conover’s travelogue is both eye-opening and open-minded.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
On the opposite end of the American road-trip literature spectrum from Kerouac’s On the Road, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways is an autobiographical account of the author’s travels through rural America, driving mostly on the network of small roads which show up in an atlas as thin blue lines. After losing his job and his marriage, Heat-Moon decides to spend 3 months driving across the United States in a green van. He avoids interstates and urban centers, purposely choosing slower, local routes, and his book is full of historical anecdotes, forthright conversations, and the many memorable characters he meets along the way.
Thoughtful, somber and deeply personal, Blue Highways is a memoir of traveling alone, of the society one encounters when driving solo through country one doesn’t know. Heat-Moon’s journey is about soul-searching but it is also about mapping an America, the small-town America that’s referenced and mythologized but hardly ever thought about with the clarity or intensity that urbanites and writers (scholarly and otherwise) apply to America’s metropolises. If a rural road trip is your ideal way to spend a summer, then this book should probably accompany you on your journey (and you might want to pick up a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Neidhardt’s Black Elk Speaks–the books Heat-Moon took with him on his trip–just for good measure).