He Said/She Said: Our Year in Books

He Said/She Said: Our Year in Books

The most under-appreciated benefits of travel is the time it affords you to reflect and read.  Long bus rides, airport waiting lounges and towns that close early are all situations that are better with a book.  As we have hostel-hopped through Asia we have swapped books with other travelers and exchanged books with hostel libraries, which has provided us with books we wouldn’t have sought out on our own.  Here are the books we would recommend from our last year on the road.


I’ve never been one to read books.  In school I would read just enough of a book to grasp what was going on and glean the deeper meanings from class discussions in order to pass the test.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read the books; the problem was that I couldn’t read a whole book the night before the test.  It’s possible there are other ways to get the books read for classes, but really, with all the cool stuff going on in the modern world, who has time for Charles Dickens?

Though book reading was very far and few between, I read a lot.  Before we left for this trip we subscribed to 13 monthly magazines of the heavy reading variety such as MIT Technology Review, Wired, National Geographic, Backpacker, etc.  I read all of them cover-to-cover each month, plus the useful sections of the Sunday New York Times, not to mention countless websites.  Because I had access to all sorts of great, generally non-fiction, reading, I never managed to read books.  I think I completed a total of three books in the past 3 years.  I always thought, if I had a chance, I would read books.

This trip was my chance; as of November 1 I’ve completed 22 books.  This has definitely been driven by the lack of internet and magazines in many places, but mainly a function of time.  We have a lot of time, in large blocks that “real life” just doesn’t afford me.  China was a miracle worker in getting me to read, when you’re on a train for 8-20 hours, surrounded by people that don’t speak your language, you don’t have any reason not to read.  I am thankful for the time I’ve had this year and the ability to read books, I think it’s made me a better writer and exposed me to styles and voices I would never have found in a non-fiction magazine.

The best part about reading on the road is that you are a book taker instead of a chooser.  I can’t meander through Amazon.com and choose a book I want, instead I choose one from the very limited selection offered by hostels and other travelers.  These books are generally outside my interest area, or just something I wouldn’t pick up.  At home I can’t imagine I would have read The Help, but I am glad I did, it was one of the best-written stories I’ve come across.  Before this trip Kurt Vonnegut was a name I knew I should know, but didn’t, after laughing and head scratching through Bluebeard and Slaughterhouse Five I can’t wait to read another of his works.  Having visited his houses and failed at previous attempts to read Gabriel García Márquez, I broke through with 100 Years of Solitude.  The book that made me think the most was Brave New World and more shocking in it’s predictions-come-true, the sequel Brave New World Revisited.  These are just a few of the books that I read and enjoyed in 2011, the year I learned to read books.


I have always enjoyed reading, but at home I never made time in my busy schedule to sit with a book save for my once a month book club selection.  If it weren’t for book club, I probably wouldn’t have even made it through 12 books in a given year.  On the road, I have devoured books on long bus rides in SE Asia and the epic multi-day train rides in China.  I have enjoyed reading whatever a fellow traveler recommends and whatever is available on the hostel shelf regardless of if I would have normally selected it for myself at home.  The wide range of books I’ve read has been the highlight of my last year’s literary adventures, below are a few of my recommendations.

I have particularly enjoyed reading books about the countries we are in or the destinations we will be visiting.  While in Vietnam I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and was drawn in by his unique storytelling.  Hearing the vivid memories of the Vietnam War through hands-on experiences of American soldiers made visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City much more impactful.  Then reading the other side of the story through the words of Phan Thi Kim Phuc in The Girl in the Picture really captured the horrors of the war from the Vietnamese perspective.  It is the story of the young girl that became famous through the picture of her running naked from her burning home after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village.

If you are looking for travel inspiration anything by Bill Bryson will not only make you laugh, but convince you that international travel is within your reach.  As you laugh your way through the stories of him bumbling through the country of Australia in In a Sunburned Country you could be convinced that he had never traveled internationally before.  Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts has gotten me excited about India from his vivid descriptions of Bombay.  Roberts’ book is the story of his life from a heroin addict to an escaped convict on the lam in India, constantly entertaining and hard to put down.

Whether you are looking to learn about your next destination or kill time while traveling to it, reading is an amazing way to open your mind.  While I know e-readers and the like are all the rage right now, I would recommend leaving your Kindle at home and opting to get out of your comfort zone with a book you wouldn’t typically choose for yourself, who knows where it might lead you.

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» Bka :
Nov 7, 2011

Each day I memorize the paper and devour my 6 monthly periodicals, but I leave the books to your mother who goes on literary / virtual vacations daily….our new past time is audio books which we inhale on vacation……just down loaded Help, which has been rated one of the best audio books of all time…..have you tried that mode?….62 days and counting…be safe…love bka

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, audio books are a great way to go and you won’t be disappointed with The Help. We both read it on the trip and it is superbly written, an excellent story that I’m sure will hit home even more for you.

thinkCHUA Reply:

I think there is something to reading. Audio books can be fun, but I like the visual of books/magazines.

» shruti :
Nov 16, 2011

I am a new Kindle reader after staunchly saying I never would.. I was lucky that a friend gifted me 10gb of books…that is 2,115 titles including some I wouldve never chosen. This has been a great help for me, as with moving abroad we also had limited space/weight to bring books. And English books are hard to find here, sadly. We exchange within our American/English-speaking circle, of course, but I can secretly read guilty pleasures on the
Kindle. I view it not as a replacement but an addition.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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