It started with an ancient capital buried in the jungles of Peru. In April 2008, a few National Geographic Traveler staffers met over lunch to discuss The Lost City, by Henry Shukman, a novel that evokes the northern Peruvian wilds and one adventurer’s quest to uncover a forgotten citadel. That lunchtime journey proved so fascinating that, ever since, we’ve been traveling together via the magic carpet of stories.
We meet every six weeks or so, and the group is open to anyone at National Geographic interested in books that inspire you to pack your bags or that reveal a place you might never get to. We read fiction, narrative nonfiction, thrillers, memoirs, essays, even “children’s literature.” We wandered from Australia and Brazil to Ukraine and Venice—all in the National Geographic spirit of learning about the world and everything in it.
We begin our 100th book this month (see what we’re reading at the end of this story). These are some of our favorite reads from the past 12 years.
Our favorite road trips
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. Turns out journalist Nellie Bly, in 1889, had a competitor for her stunt round-the-world trip in the fastest time. Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter for a rival newspaper, departed New York on the same day as Bly, going in the opposite direction. Goodman’s true tale of these trailblazing women is an exhilarating (and exhausting) read.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A spirited young woman from a small town in the Yucatán and a Maya god of the dead make an odd couple in this legend-filled Mexican odyssey. After reading this novel, Nat Geo Travel associate editor Brooke Sabin says, “I knew to seek out a cenote and look for a portal to the underworld on my recent trip to the Yucatán.”
Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck. A dog proves to be the best companion in Steinbeck’s classic 1962 travelogue of his trip around the U.S. meeting fellow Americans and reflecting on the state of the nation.
The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, Evans undertakes the ultimate road trip: 12,000 miles in a month from Nat Geo headquarters, in Washington, D.C., to Antarctica—almost entirely by public transport.
A Hole in the Wind, by David Goodrich. A climate scientist bikes across the U.S. from Delaware to Oregon, noting the effects of climate change on communities. Goodrich’s story helped Dustin Renwick, senior program officer for Nat Geo storytelling grants, see wind in a new way: “He lends physical presence to a force we perceive but never directly observe.”
Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller. “Several years ago, I convinced my fiancé to go to Zimbabwe for our honeymoon. This book is the reason why,” says Nat Geo finance director Jeannette Swain. “Fuller’s memoir of growing up in (now) Zimbabwe is beautiful, haunting, and captivating. Despite hardships, her love for her family and Africa is as large as the continent itself.”
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed finds her best self while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. With her candor and willingness to be vulnerable, she inspired us to believe we could hike it too.
The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, by Jennifer Steil. Here was a book about a place none of us knew much about, beyond the occasional news headline: Yemen. During a year teaching a journalism class and editing an English-language newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, Steil brings us along as she hangs out at a pool party with Yemeni girlfriends, deals with prejudice from her male colleagues—and falls in love.
Without You, There is No Us, by Suki Kim. A compelling account of Kim’s stint teaching English at a North Korean university, this memoir “provided insight on a place I’m unlikely to ever visit,” says former Nat Geo Channels researcher Rachael Jackson.
Novels that made us LOL
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. A scalpel-wit satire about the insular world of Seattle’s Microsoft elite veers into unexpected territory when architect and private-school mom Bernadette suddenly takes off for Antarctica without telling anyone.
The Matchmaker of Périgord, by Julia Stuart. “This was possibly the book I enjoyed the most,” says Jackson, “for its delightful, rhythmic writing and depiction of a whimsical little town in rural France. The images stayed with me: the woman who wore fancy dresses shorn off at the knee, the two men who had a tradition of trying to “out-picnic” each other. I passed it along to my husband and we still quote those men at their picnics: ‘Are you feeling peckish?’”
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. We know who we’d want as our desert-island companion: Count Alexander Rostov. He can’t leave Moscow’s Metropol hotel without risking death, yet he spins a whole world out of his posh prison and finds humor, love, and family.
Nonfiction that dives deep
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Delving into the mystery of the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire, the largest library fire in U.S. history, Orlean goes deep into the stacks at the type of place many of us consider heaven. “I really enjoyed this book, for obvious reasons,” says Nat Geo library director Maggie Turqman.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. In Mumbai, slums lie in the shadows of glass-covered luxury hotels and office towers. Boo shows the spectrum of hope and despair in one particular slum, Annawadi, which is hidden from a city highway behind a concrete wall plastered in an ad for Italian tile that reads “Beautiful Forever.”
Fiction that takes you there
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Simply beautiful writing and a gripping narrative set in WWII France had us turning pages and biting our nails.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Cora escapes the brutality of the antebellum South on an actual underground railroad. Each stop on her journey rings with truth despite (or because of) Whitehead’s disruptions of time, space, and history.
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. “Many of the book-club reads have been page-turners, but this one became an obsession for me,” says Sabin. “Zafón treats his native Barcelona like a character, detailing its many moods and dark corners. On recent trips to the city, I’ve used the book’s settings as inspiration to explore evocative, less-touristed spots like the medieval Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar and the hilltop Tibidabo, with its old-fashioned amusement park and views stretching from city to sea.”
Amy Alipio is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Twitter.